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JOY School: Ringing out the sounds of the season

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

They are making some joyful noise at JOY School University.

Tom and Anne Higgins from Fredericksburg, Va., have been teaching the special needs adults who no longer qualify for daily public school programs how to play hand bells.

The Virginia couple visits Long Bay Resorts in Myrtle Beach every winter to get away from the snow. They are active in a ministry for special needs adults at their church, Fredericksburg Baptist. That’s where they made a local connection that brought them to the JOY School University. Anne Burgin of Pawleys Island has a nephew with Down syndrome who lives in one of the group homes run by Fredericksburg Baptist Church. The Higginses have known him since he was a youngster crawling under the desks and chairs at church. “He is a real asset to our Sunday school class,” Tom said.

His affiliation with special needs adults began more than 20 years ago and has become such a part of his life that he wrote a book, “How Far Is It From Richmond to Heaven?” about his work with them. He started the hand bell choir in 2000 and has taken the group to 175 churches, delivering a message about special needs adults along with the music. “People realize these are neat people,” Tom said. “They have a sense of humor.”

The JOY School University group was playing Christmas carols the first day Tom and Anne Higgins came to Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church. Each adult got a colored bell. Tom held a stack of flashcards with combinations of colors in front of them. If the bell-ringer saw his color, he rang the bell as long as the card was visible. When Tom exposed the next card, other bells rang.

Whitney Barrineau, 24, had a blue bell, and she rang loudly when she saw the card with a blue square. The adults had no trouble with “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” during their second practice session. It sounded like they had been practicing for weeks.

Tom said there’s a secret to directing the bell choir without seeing the fronts of the cards. He follows the beat of the songs by the numbers on back of the cards. And he’s written the words of the songs as some extra help. “The group at home doesn’t need to practice,” he said. “I’m the one who needs to practice.”

Martha Insignares, JOY School director, said all the adults, regardless of handicap, can participate. “It’s something we’re really good at,” she said. “When you feel success, it boosts self-esteem, and everything about your life improves because you are good at something.”

Insignares said she didn’t know what to expect when Burgin called and asked if Tom and Ann Higgins could bring their bells and cards. “I just trusted they were going to be nice people,” Insignares said. “It was great.”

Now she’s thinking about having the adults perform some hand bell numbers at a “Gospelfest” scheduled Feb. 8 at the Pawleys Island Community Church as a fundraiser for the JOY School. The songs are not all Christmas carols. Tom has cards for patriotic, Broadway and religious songs.

“It’s a concept I wish I had invented,” he said.

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