Goessel friends celebrate 60 years of smiles and hugs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CAROL DUERKSEN
Jim and Judy Schrag, along with many others, had an important engagement at Tabor Mennonite Church in Goessel in early November they weren’t going to miss for the world.

It was a Sunday morning celebration and 60th birthday party for Kathy Schmidt.

The Schrags’ relationship with Schmidt goes back more than 32 years when Jim, now executive director for Mennonite Church USA, was a young pastor at Tabor Mennonite Church. It’s a relationship that has reached beyond that of a pastor and his family and a regular person in the pew.

Kathy, a lifelong member of the Mennonite Church USA congregation, was born in 1945 and diagnosed with Downs Syndrome shortly after her birth. Her parents, Rudy and Luella Schmidt, were dairy farmers and eventually had four children in the family.

“Three doctors told us to put (Kathy) in an institution and forget we had her,” Rudy recalls. “When Luella visited the place in Winfield, she came home and said ‘I will never put my child there.'”

Instead, the Schmidts decided to take another approach and raise Kathy like their other children and provided an environment where work, laughter, acceptance and love walked hand-in-hand.

Because of that environment, Kathy continues to share those values with the people in her life.

“Kathy has been a part of this congregation for all these years,” said Corey Miller, pastor at Tabor Mennonite Church.

“She was dedicated at Tabor; she was baptized at Tabor; she cared for children at Tabor. It is clear that she has always felt a strong connection to this church.”

Kathy is adamant that Tabor is a home for her.

“I go to Tabor because that’s my home church,” she said. “I got baptized by Rev. James Waltner in the old church building.”

Although Kathy has Downs Syndrome and many would not expect it, her role within the congregation has always been as a supporter and encourager. Some of the children she cared for did not even think of her as having a disability.

“With Jim preaching, I needed help with our children,” Judy Schrag said. “I depended on Kathy’s help, in the form of a loving embrace and inviting lap at our church services.

“While their father was ministering to the congregation, Kathy’s stewardship was to our family. Years passed. One day my oldest daughter came to me with a problem. She had a Wednesday night discussion about people with (disabilities). She couldn’t think of anyone! Eventually, she asked, ‘Would Kathy be handicapped?'”

“Kathy’s smile is never absent from her,” Miller said. “Kathy’s smiles and hugs are contagious and they have the ability to brighten anyone’s day. It is her joy and her laughter and her ability to play in life that is such an inspiration to me.”

Kathy’s profound words and actions flow out of her without pretense-they are simply “Kathy.”

Asked what she likes about Tabor, her response was “I like everything!”

At the same time, when an annual business meeting went long, she announced, “It’s time to go home now.” Kathy said she loves her Sunday school class, noting that the teacher of the class is “kinda new yet.”

Her contributions to the congregation played a significant role in the decision to honor her 60th birthday during a Sunday morning worship service Nov. 6.

Kathy’s birthday party was not only a tribute to her, but to a family, community and congregation that has wrapped warm arms of acceptance and love around her for 60 years.

With birthday balloons dancing in front of the church, Miller used Kathy as an example in his sermon of someone who has the peace of Christ within her.

More than 150 people enjoyed the noon meal provided by Kathy’s family that Sunday.

One of the celebrants was Marcia Hiebert. Like most of Kathy’s family and close friends, Marcia has received a huge dose of Kathy humor through a nickname: Marshmallow Heeba-Hubba.

“She usually calls me her ‘girlfriend Marshmallow,'” Hiebert said. “She’s been my friend since childhood. It’s been a privilege-I’ve learned a lot from her.

“The multitude of people who gathered to celebrate Kathy’s birthday is a reflection of the number of lives she’s touched and gifted by her abilities, her humor and her love-we are all richer because she lives among us,” said Elizabeth Schmidt, a friend of Kathy’s who attended the celebration.

Schmidt met Kathy through Northview Developmental Services, an organization Kathy’s parents helped found and continues to provide opportunities for her.

In addition to her contributions to Tabor Mennonite Church, Kathy has been employed by Bethesda Home in Goessel for 21 years. She recently was recognized with an Achievement in the Workplace Award for her work by InterHab, an organization that works with government, business and industry to form partnerships that foster economic opportunities for all citizens in the community.

Working with laundry and housekeeping comes naturally to Kathy, her father said. While growing up, she spent many hours washing clothes, ironing towels and cleaning the house.

“My mom taught me,” Kathy said.

Her employer appreciates her as much as the people at Tabor.

“Kathy loves everybody, and everybody loves her,” said Kathy Miller, her supervisor at Bethesda. “She takes her job seriously, is dependable and a hard worker. I don’t know what we’d do without her, and I’d like to have more like her.”

Maybe Kathy’s place in the lives of so many people is summarized by her answer when asked how many nieces and nephews she has:

“All of them!” she replied with a huge grin.

Carol Duerksen, a freelance writer from rural Hillsboro, wrote this article for Mennonite Church USA News Service.

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