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Baptist Leader Helps Train Churches to Reach, Protect Those With Disabilities

Tom Stolle's (right) journey in caring for his son Jimmy has led to an intentional effort to equip laypeople and churches in the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware for ministering to individuals and families with special needs.

DAGSBORO, Delaware (BP) – For Tom Stolle, associate executive director and chief financial officer for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCMD), helping equip churches to care for those with disabilities is a deeply personal endeavor. His son, Jimmy, now 20, was born with severe autism.

Stolle’s latest involvement is serving as chair of the state convention’s task force meant to analyze and address sexual abuse. Stolle said part of his reason for wanting to lead the task force is that those with disabilities are at a very high risk to be sexually abused.

He cited research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that states the rate of rape and sexual assault against individuals with disabilities is 7 times the rate of those without disability. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, more than 90 percent of people with intellectual disabilities will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

“What these statistics mean for someone like my son is that it’s not a matter of if, it’s almost a matter of when,” Stolle said.

“People should experience the love of God and who God is within the Church. They should not experience things that would make them think that God does not love them and that the Church does not care about them. If they are not protected and these things happen to them, these are the things they experience. The Church needs to be better than that, and that’s what I want.”

His passion for educating churches about special needs ministry comes from his own journey with Jimmy. Despite the many blessings Stolle said his family has experienced, the road has been challenging and unexpected.

“In all the things we discussed when preparing to have a third child, the thought of disability entering into our lives was just something that never occurred to us,” Stolle said.

Jimmy’s autism caused serious developmental disorders. To this day, he remains nonverbal.

Stolle and his wife Shelley became accustomed to their routine of caring for Jimmy, but the teenage years brought an unexpected danger.

The onset of hormones combined with Jimmy’s autism would frequently elicit violent outbursts from Jimmy, in which he would scratch and hit his parents. Stolle described the attacks as severe and sometimes lasting up to an hour.

The episodes went on for several years, and the Stolles still bear physical scars from them. But Stolle said he and Shelly never responded with violence against Jimmy.

The road was hard, but one place the family was able to find some relief and encouragement is through their church – High Tide Church in Dagsboro, Del.