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Heartlights hosted at Towson Presbyterian Church meets weekly

Heartlights has been going on for more than 50 years at Towson Presbyterian Church

"Let all God's people say Amen," Roxanne Maffitt-Harvey sang.

The Sunday school class of special needs adults sang along enthusiastically, if a little uncertainly.

"Whoop, whoop. Yeah!" Maffitt-Harvey ended, throwing her hands joyfully in the air.

"Yeah!" said Markita Hardison emphatically.

Hardison, 26, who lives in a group home, was one of seven developmentally disabled people, ranging from their 20s to their 70s and mostly from the Towson-Parkville area, who came to the weekly class at Towson Presbyterian Church on Oct. 19, ready to sing, study the Bible, reflect on the nature of God and do arts and crafts projects about creation and saving the earth environmentally.

The program, called Heartlights, has been around since the 1950s and was founded by the parents of two developmentally disabled children. The name dates to the early 1980s, when participants went to see the movie "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," and were impressed by the alien's glowing heart.

"The ministry has grown since then," said Maffitt-Harvey, who started as a Heartlights music teacher and now leads the class with the help of several other teachers. She also teaches English at the Community College of Baltimore County and writing at St. Mary's Seminary & University Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Roland Park.

The Heartlights program grew to as many as 25 participants but thinned in recent years as some members have died and others come sporadically. Maffitt-Harvey said she is trying to spread the word about the program through Presbyterian church newsletters and the media.

"We're reaching out," she said.

On Oct. 19, the group, sitting around a table in a church meeting room, was lively and talkative with their teachers and a reporter, excerpt for Dan Morton, 46, who lives at home with his parents and is a longtime participant. His mother, Carol Morton, said he likes to talk at home but is reserved elsewhere.

"He's very peripheral, but he knows what's going on. If we're not here, he wants to know why we're not here," Carol Morton said.

The class discussed its theme of the week, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Volunteer teen assistant Nora Moumane, 13, a Campus Hills resident and eighth-grader at St. Pius X Catholic School, read a story called "Moses Thinks About God," based on Exodus 33:12-23 and part of the church's teaching curriculum for lower grades.

"I like helping Heartlights," said Nora, who is active in the church. "I'm giving back."

Also helping was former Heartlights lead teacher Beth Bugg, who is taking a year off after 13 years.

"But I can't stay away," she said, greeting group members like old friends. Bugg is a science and special education teacher at Perry Hall High School.

The students seemed glad to be there. Mary Patterson, 70, gave Maffitt-Harvey a big hug and was full of news about her recent trip to Bermuda with several other members of a group home run by Gallagher Services for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, part of Catholic Charities. Gallagher Services was the sponsor of the trip.

"We saw everything," Patterson said. "We went shopping. I like to go shopping."

Hardison was eager to explain what she likes about the class.

"It helps us be good and to help people," she said. "It's good to be with God. God is with me a lot."

And, she added, "I like to sing."

"It's important that you sing to them," said Ana Montero-Bowerman, one of the teachers in the program. She said she also considers it important to stress environmental stewardship themes. Participants have made crafts such as mounds of a dirt-like substance with flags stuck in them that say, "I will protect the natural spaces," or "I will not litter. I will pick up trash."

"I like coming here," said Peggy Flynn, 65. She said she has learned that, "We can't see God, but God is with us every day."

Susan Rohde, 54, who is Jewish, comes to the non-denominational class on Sunday mornings in addition to Sabbath services at an area synagogue.

"I have the Shabbat candles," she said proudly. The group sang songs with a Jewish theme in her honor.

Diane Scott, 63, said she enjoys the class because, "We make things in here."

Bugg said that Scott is one of the most artistically gifted students.

"She draws," Bugg said. "She takes a lot of care with her projects."

Tracy Rosen, 50, couldn't really explain what she likes about the class.

"I don't know," she said. "I just like it. We sing a lot."

Most parents are church members and love the convenience of the class, leaving their adult children while they attend church services that are conducted at the same time.

"I come to church. [Dan] can come to Sunday school," Carol Morton.

Kelly Johnson-Garland, who works at one of the group homes and brought several participants to the class, said she can see how much they look forward to the class and how much enjoyment they get from it.

"It carries them through the week," she said.

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