Shawn Kirkpatrick
Opelika Observer

“Everything that is done is a labor of love for the night.” That’s what Julie Brown said about the upcoming Near His Heart celebration. Brown, the director for Near His Heart, says the focus of the evening is to encourage and uplift the parents and caregivers of special needs children, teens and adults.
Brown’s son Tyler was diagnosed with mild autism at age three. She said at age six, after three years of intensive therapies and slow progress, he severely regressed into a child with profound autism. “Our faith in a God who loves us and our son greatly is the only thing that sustained us,” Brown said. “We want others to know that same hope and encouragement we have known when circumstances seemed bleakest.”
At Near His Heart, caregivers enjoy a banquet, along with music and words of encouragement from a special speaker. The children have their own separate event with pizza, puppets and music. There is also another group meeting at the same time. “A young adult Bible study developed three years ago for those with more physical and social disabilities that wouldn’t enjoy the Vacation Bible School setting for the others,” said Brown. “They also have music and fun things, and they will have different people speak and encourage them.”
Near His Heart started as a community outreach project as part of the woman’s ministry at Lakeview Baptist Church in 2011. The first dinner, in 2012, was so well received that Brown put together a team made up of people from several local churches, volunteers and outside donations to do it again.
“We have volunteers from all over the community. From the university, from lots of different churches that are involved,” Brown said. “We have typically more than 200 volunteers that help with the night. From set up, to child care, to making the meals.”
Around 240 caregivers are served a quiet dinner in style for their special night. “We had one woman the first year tell me, there were real glasses and plates,” Brown said. “The woman who does our kitchen now, she said for an event that size I wouldn’t typically do real glasses and plates. But for this group, I’ll do that. I mean, the heart of the people that serve our families is so gracious and kind.”
Several nurses, behavior analysts and buddies are there for the special needs individuals. College students also help with childcare and serving the meals. Each caregiver is given a bag full of goodies and additional information on resources that will help them and their family.
“I had one mom tell me that when she left, she felt like Cinderella after the ball. She said she loved it,” said Brown. “We want to love these families lavishly, like Christ has loved us. That is our goal.”
Anthony Kidd is the keynote speaker at this year’s celebration. He is a pastor and father to a daughter with disabilities. Kidd will share his story of hope and encouragement for all families affected by disability. The event is free of charge.
Go to to register. The event starts at 6 p.m., Feb. 2 at Lakeview Baptist Church, which is located at 1060 E. Glenn Ave. in Auburn.