LAKE WALES – Twenty years ago, Lake Wales resident Mertice Kelly found what she believed to be her calling in life — to create a ministry for area residents who are disabled.
From that calling, Circle of Friends Ministry was born.
On Saturday, Jan. 11, Kelly will help kick off the Circle of Friends 20th Anniversary Party. To celebrate 20 years of the ministry, Circle of Friends supporters are hosting a party in downtown Lake Wales from 2 p.m. until around 8 p.m.
“We would love for you to come by Circle of Friends Ministry in downtown Lake Wales,” program director Alison Martin said. “We will be celebrating 20 years of this ministry operating a daytime program for beautiful special needs friends. So, past friends, present friends and future friends who we would love to meet, stop by and see us and enjoy the fun for a great celebration.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd will be speaking at 3:30 p.m. and there is an all-you-can-eat chili dinner starting at 5 p.m. There will be games, face painting, corn hole, a cake walk, a pie eating contest and a Connect 4 tournament for kids in attendance.
Circle of Friends participants will also be performing a show and music will be provided by DJ Harlow.
Kelly's daughter, Connie Darlene Fehringer, was born with disabilities and her experience with a child with special needs informed her desire to launch the ministry.
“Over the years, I watched how she was rejected, laughed at, and while the community did things for other children, they never had anything for her,” Kelly recalled. “As a mom, it really hurt me really bad, but I could not separate that from being a woman of faith. Something inside me just rose up and said I have to do something.
“(Individuals with disabilities) want to be loved,” she continued. “They want friends, they want to live and grow — just like you and I do.”
Circle of Friends has grown quite a bit since the ministry was born two decades ago, first situated in a gymnasium at what is now IMPACT Church in Lake Wales.
In 2013, a building at 105 East Stuart was donated to the ministry. Kelly and Circle of Friends Ministry supporters started providing job training, life skill training and, generally speaking, giving area disabled people a place to enjoy fellowship.
The Treasured Friends Gift Shop, located just down the street, is used to raise money for the ministry. It also helps participants get job training by helping to sell items at the store, price and stock items, as well as having healthy interactions with others.
If you have someone in your life who is disabled and may want to become involved with the ministry, or for more information, call (863) 679-2507.