Though Lizzie Blank, 17, and Sandy Lindamood, 18, have only known each other for a few hours, you’d think they’d been friends forever.
Tonight they are at dinner in New Orleans laughing and getting to know one another. “Lizzie lives in North Carolina,” Sandy proudly announces. Lizzie, who speaks with the help of a special computer device, finishes, “”I live in Winston-Salem.”
Lizzie and Sandy are attending the ELCA Definitely Abled Youth Leadership Event or more popularly known as DAYLE, July 16-18. Along with 20 other gifted young people with a wide range of physical, cognitive and emotional differences, they will spend two days here attending workshops, participating in service projects, and socializing before joining the larger ELCA Youth Gathering, where 35,000 teens will gather July 18-22.
Emily Schmidlin of Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Kent, Ohio, has attended four DAYLE events. This year she’s serving as a volunteer both at DAYLE and at the Gathering. She describes DAYLE as an opportunity “for youth with a variety of abilities to gather together and empower them to use the gifts that they have to make a difference in the world.”
DAYLE’s schedule includes a variety of activities designed to help students engage with this year’s theme, “citizens with the saints.” The meeting also allowed the students to get to know the Gathering sites before the rest of the Gathering converges on the city.
“We’ve had opportunities to worship together and have music and have tours of the Superdome and Convention Center (where Gathering events will be held),” says Emily, “and we’re getting to know lots of new people.”
For many, the highlight of DAYLE is the chance to make new friends and worship together. Chloe Schlough, 18, of St. Cloud, Minn., says her favorite part of the Gathering is the “singing and dancing,” and Matt Greer of Anna, Ohio, agrees.
This is Matt’s second time at DAYLE. He has come with his entire youth group to attend the Gathering, and he says he decided to come back because “I liked it, and I liked hearing the music, and I wanted to get to experience New Orleans again.”
The event also serves a deeper purpose, though. It’s a chance to live out their faith and make a difference in the lives of others.
This year all of the DAYLE participants worked to prepare bags of toiletries and supplies for homeless youth in New Orleans. They’ll also participate with the larger Gathering in service projects all over the city.
“The most moving moment to me of Gatherings that I’ve been to is just seeing the sheer number of people that come to these things and being able to see the immense amount of change that happens in such a short time with so many empowered people,” Emily says. It’s also a chance to show people that while these students may have some differences, they still can make an important contribution to their church and their communities.
“Although we in the definitely abled community may look or act differently than you’re used to, we still have the same hopes and dreams and goals and a lot of the same abilities,” Emily says. “I would encourage you to look past what might be your first impression and really get to know others.”