A Season to Remember

Blake Shelley’s (G12) cerebral palsy didn’t deter him from earning a degree – or from starting a ministry that reaches out to disabled youth

By Sean Patterson

One of Blake Shelley’s favorite George Fox memories has nothing to do with academics, activities or an event he attended. Rather, he remembers fondly the day his main mode of transportation went mysteriously missing.

“In my first year at Fox, I was living over in Beals House and my roommate thought it would be a good joke to put my scooter on the roof,” he recalls. “We had a good laugh about that.”

The fact that Shelley – who has lived with cerebral palsy all his life – can laugh about a friend’s mischievous act speaks volumes. Nothing rattles him – not a disability that relegates him to a wheelchair and impedes his speech and fine motor skills, and certainly not a prank like hoisting his scooter on top of a house.

That resolve drove Shelley, 23, to graduate from George Fox this spring with a degree in Christian ministries. And now he has plans to start a Capernaum group – a ministry that specializes in reaching out to disabled youth – in his hometown of Gresham, Ore.

Shelley began his first Capernaum ministry in Newberg in the fall of 2010. He wasn’t too excited about the idea at first.

Blake Shelley

“My first reaction was to say, ‘No, I don’t want anything to do with it,’” he says of the ministry, an outreach of Young Life. “I spent my whole life trying to separate myself from the mentally challenged population. Because we look funny and talk funny, a lot of people put me in that category, so in high school I did everything in my power to stay separate from them.

“But over the course of two weeks God changed my heart, and I got this feeling that I have to do this. I went to visit the Capernaum in Lake Oswego and just fell in love with the ministry and with the kids. Now it’s all I want to do.”

Capernaum is all about building relationships and, according to Shelley, “showing the love of Jesus” to disabled high schoolers who, for the most part, have little or no social lives. It entails visits to students at school, twice-monthly club meetings for games, singing and devotions, and summer camps that encourage kids to bond and get outdoors.

“Every time they walk into club or I walk into school, they always come running up to me to say hi,” he says. “No matter what they’re doing. They’re that excited to be with me and the other leaders. That really touches me.”

Blake Shelley

At the end of each Capernaum meeting, Shelley delivers a brief message, this time reminding students that “we’re all made in the image of God.”

Shelley is starting his first Gresham-area Capernaum group at his alma mater, Reynolds High School. Ultimately, his hope is to see similar clubs form at all the Gresham high schools – Gresham, Barlow, Centennial, David Douglas and Parkrose.

He credits the support he received from friends and professors at George Fox for nurturing his love of those less fortunate.

“I had never been on another college campus where I felt like students were a family and the professors actually wanted to get to know you and become your friend,” says Shelley, who attended George Fox through Act Six, a full-ride scholarship designed to develop urban leaders. “The supportive atmosphere is a big reason I was able to succeed here, and it had an impact on my decision to do Capernaum.”

Shelley struggles to speak and has trouble controlling his arms and legs, yet, as he proudly puts it, he “managed to graduate from one of the top Christian colleges in the nation.

“I started out not being able to do a whole lot, but in high school I did track, and I was the first one of all my siblings to move out and go away to college,” says Shelley, who has a twin sister and a younger sister. “So, if people still doubt my ability to do things I set my mind to, there’s not much to say, because as long as I keep my focus on God and what he wants me to do, it doesn’t really matter what other people say.”

Still, he is quick to deflect praise. “I’ve had people tell me I inspire them, but I always want to make sure that it points back to God, because although I have done a lot of things that people didn’t think I could ever do, it is only because of my faith in God.”

“I have always lived my life by Philippians 4:13, which says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.’ I always believed that the only reason I was able to achieve the things I have is because it was Christ living in me and through me to strengthen me.”