VIP Treatment

Photos by AMANDA C. GREGG

Young Life Capernaum brings together youths with disabilities as well as able-bodies kids, to the benefit — and greater fun — of all concerned

Kaua‘i Veterans Center booms with music and is burgeoning with teens dancing to the band The Buddy System — another successful fundraiser for organizer Ana Munoz of Young Life Capernaum Kaua‘i.

It’s just one of many for the mother of three, who is petite in stature but large in faith. Munoz has dedicated her attention to improving the lives of those she calls VIPs (very important people) — youths who happen to have disabilities — and this concert is just one example of how she makes life a little better for these teens and young adults with special needs.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Munoz, the daughter of Mexican parents, moved to the United States at age 10. She has lived on Kaua‘i for 21 years.

“I came here for an adventure and decided to stay,” she says.

Offering adventure to everyone inspires Munoz. As volunteer area director for Young Life Capernaum Kaua‘i, she aims to give young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the chance to experience the kind of fun they might not otherwise be exposed. The non-denominational organization is open to anyone age 12-25 with physical or mental disabilities or challenges.

Also the owner of La Bamba Mexican Restaurant, Munoz’s life is hardly spilling over with free time. But taking care of her VIPs is not only a priority, it’s something she loves and understands, especially as her 16-year-old daughter Mariana is a special-needs child.

“My challenges were in the beginning of Mariana’s life,” Munoz says. “I was ignorant about any kind of disability. When the doctor told me we had a child with Down syndrome, I felt my world crumble. I had to pray and ask God for wisdom … I thought I had life all figured out since she was my second child, and my first child was ‘perfect.'”

Following Mariana’s diagnosis, Munoz says life started “unfolding” for her.

“I entered Mariana in a beauty pageant at the age of 5. She had placed third the first year. At age 6, I entered her again, and to my amazement she won Miss Little Garden Island that year.

“It was so clear to me from that moment on that we were going to have some breakthroughs in our lives. We were going to believe bigger than life.”

Capernaum means “city of comfort,” Munoz says, and the club she directs is designed to improve confidence and relationships. Munoz says in July 2010 she and her daughter experienced the camp in Arizona, and they returned with excitement to share it with Kaua‘i.

“We had come across it through a friend of mine, Sheila Ringor. She had mentioned to me that her daughter Shealynna was going to help out at that camp. … I wanted my daughter to experience camp, and this was the first time she could have that opportunity. So that year I went with her, and then when we came (home) we started the club.”

Munoz and Shealynna brought the club to Kaua‘i after Munoz met with founding director of Young Life Capernaum in Arizona, Nick Palermo. “He (said) to me, ‘Ana, you get me 10 kids and I will help you start a club.'”

From there grew monthly get-togethers on Kaua‘i for both able-bodied and challenged adolescents, which now is made up of 50 participants: 25 VIPs and 30 peers.

“The able-bodied buddies we call ‘the peers,’ come to help and provide such a delight for the kids,” says Munoz. “They can relax and be silly. They know that, ‘Hey, these are my true friends. They accept me for who I am.'”

The organizers of the club train the peers, who often attend the same school as the developmentally challenged students.

“They have learned to be more comfortable,” she says. “Kaua‘i is small, so it’s been pretty easy to pair them up with the VIPs they see at school on a regular basis.”

Munoz adds that the monthly clubs build the VIPs’ self-esteem. “They feel they now belong. Not only have they learned and grown from these experiences, but we have gotten a reciprocal effect from their peers who have helped on a regular basis. They have gotten to learn more about the difference they can make in these youths’ lives.

“We start to see more of their abilities rather than their disabilities. Yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable at first, but the more they get to know one another, the more they realize they are people like you and me.”

Shealynna Ringor, 19, who co-founded the Kaua‘i effort with Ana, says she is so grateful for the experiences it has given her and participants.

“The joy they have is something so special,” Ringor says. “I cannot help but be thankful for each and every VIP. They have made a huge difference in my life, and I hope others will have a chance to see the true beauty in each and every one of them as well.”

Munoz says one of the club’s many advantages is that, in addition to providing a fun outlet for her VIPs, it breaks down misconceptions and helps engage and connect youths across a wide range of abilities. “They have the same desires we have,” she says. “Some can communicate it and others cannot. And at Young Life Capernaum we want to reach every one of these young adolescents to know that they are loved, accepted and included. We want to bring out the best in their lives. We want to help them build their self-esteem by teaching them that God has a special plan for their lives. We are so blessed to have them.”

When she isn’t working or volunteering, she still enjoys sharing her time with family and others.

“I like to talk to people, read my Bible, go out to Coffee Bean, go out with my husband, Omar, and kids, or go out with our Capernaum kids,” she says.

The next Young Life Capernaum event, themed Cowboys and Cowgirls, is slated for Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Healing Horses. For more information, call Ana Munoz at 652-5173

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