By Julie Shepherd-Lovell

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about the remarkable people who are part of our Next Step Ministries' family.


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19-year-old Daniel may have autism, but he’s also a bit of a ham. He’s a talented musician, and when he sits behind a set of drums in front of a crowd, his music speaks volumes about his love for life and the Lord.

“He started taking drum lessons from a wonderful man at our church,” says his mom, Zoey. “He really has a passion for drumming, and has been playing since he was about nine years old.” 

The Woodstock High School student first started beating the drums when he was nine years old, but he’s been beating the odds ever since he was born prematurely. Over the years, this inspiring young man has battled everything from autism, seizures and Crohn’s Disease to cirrhosis, cancer and a life-saving liver transplant.

 “Even now that he seems stable, we never forget to praise God and thank Him,” says Zoey, who is also thankful for her son’s resilience.

“I never see Daniel unhappy,” she adds. “Even when he’s in pain, he manages to be happy,” says his mom. “He fills my life with joy."

Daniel is definitely a survivor, and so is his remarkable mom, who has raised him as a single parent since he was ten years old. Zoey’s deep faith, and her love for her son keep her going when life gets difficult. She also relies on her friends at Next Step Ministries, who help care for Daniel during school holidays and summer camps.  

“A friend told me about Next Step when Daniel was about 12,” says Zoey. "At first, it was just a daycare, but then I started falling in love with the people who go there, with Lori Baker and the staff.”

“We just love having Daniel here,” says Lori.  “He loves history, and has a pretty good memory. Especially when he first started, he would come in quoting Bible verses. He also has a wonderful mom."

Zoey says Lori doesn’t just take care of Daniel; she supports the whole family. 

“Sometimes I go to Next Step, and I’m just dragging, and  Lori tells me, ‘Come on, you can do it,’" says Zoey. “She encourages and inspires. She is a woman of God. I know she does this for a lot of families."

At Next Step, Daniel participates in the job skills program.  Coordinator Cheryl Allison says he’s very capable and is a big help with work projects. She also calls him a charmer, who’s a pleasure to be around.

“He loves to share his love of music,” says Cheryl. “Music is such a natural energizer, and it is something that really binds us all. So that’s amazing that he does that.”

When he’s not hanging out with his friends at Next Step, Daniel keeps his mom on the go. 

“He’s very happy and active,” Zoey says. “He plays tennis for Special Olympics, and loves swimming. He likes movies, and memorizes the biographies of everybody from writers to composers. He’s always telling me something interesting."

Daniel plans to attend a Transition Academy after high school, and then wants to pursue music in college. But Zoey thinks her son will also always find a home at Next Step.

“It’s something inside his heart because of the way he’s treated and respected,” Zoey says. “Lori has a team of people who have a passion for children with special needs. I think God chose these people to be here, and chose Lori to open this business because they need a community.” 

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories about the remarkable people who are part of our Next Step Ministries' family.

When you first meet 25-year-old David, he seems mild-mannered and reserved. But don’t let that initial impression fool you. This quiet young man, who has cerebral palsy and autism, likes to have fun when he’s hanging out with his friends at Next Step Ministries.

“He’s happy and he dances,” says his mom, Donna. “It’s hilarious. They call it ‘Doing
the David.’ He’s got a good personality.”
David’s been attending Next Step regularly since he graduated from McIntosh High
School in Peachtree City in 2011. His parents checked out a number of day
programs around the region before they decided Next Step was the best fit for their
“I like the small ratio of workers to clients,” Donna says. “I want him to be with
people who talk, laugh and dance. They work really hard to get him to participate,
and they are really excited when he does.”
Once Donna and Mark (David’s dad) saw that their son had found a home-away-from-home, they sold their own home in Fayetteville and moved to Marietta to be
closer to Next Step in Woodstock. Donna says David loves the people who care for
him at Next Step, including Lead Trainer Karen Lyner and Trainer Barbara Clarkson.In spite of his limited verbal skills, Barbara says, "David is very expressive. He is good at communicating his wants."“He has a really sweet personality once you get to know him and he loves you ,” Donna says. “Karen’s petite, and he’ll lean over and kiss her on the head. ““I love my David and all the times he does his happy dance just to cheer me up!” says Karen.  When David’s not at Next Step, he enjoys activities like swimming and bowling,
visiting his grandma, and going out to eat. David’s parents are grateful they’ve found
a place for him to make friends, learn and have fun.
 “I don’t know what I would do without Next Step,” says Donna. “We talked about
other options, but I don’t want him in the house for the whole day. I like the
thought of him having his own life. “When David was diagnosed with special needs as a baby, his mom says she was
angry and upset. But that quickly changed.
“I was mad, but in a blink of an eye, God reminded me that all he gave me David for
was as a blessing,” says Donna. “David’s taught me to love and care about people, to
be more compassionate and understanding.” David’s life has had a positive impact on many other people around him, including his friends at Next Step. In Karen's view, "The reaction David has [to a situation] depends on how I choose to respond. . . This simple act taught me about myself and how to respond with a positive attitude." Barbara sums it up simply, "He is my joy."

     23-year-old Sean spends several hoursin the pool each week, training for an international meet this summer in Ecuador. When he’s not swimming, there’s a good chance you’ll find him at one of his favorite hangouts: Next Step Ministries. Sean is an award-winning athlete, who is also autistic.

  “He’s obsessive-compulsive, his communication skills are very poor, and he can’t process language very well,” said his mom, Emily. “On the other hand, he’s a physical savant. He’s extremely athletic, and has won first place in every sport he’s ever played.” 

     Emily said her son enjoys his time at Next Step so much that it’s become a good way to reward him for sticking to his rigid training schedule for swimming.   

     “He wants to come. It’s great to know he has something.  It’s not just him in his room and four walls. I like knowing he has something that makes him happy. That gives him some sort of ownership in his own life,” said Emily.  

     Over the last 15 years, Sean has won nearly 50 awards for swimming, competing against athletes both with and without special developmental needs.   His stepdad, Patrick, is also his coach. In June, Patrick will lead the U.S. delegation to the INAS Guayaquil Open Para-Swimming Meet in Ecuador. Sean and four other athletes from his team, the Nautical Milers, will represent the U.S, along with four swimmers from other states. 

       This talented athlete stands out in a crowd of Special Olympians, yet blends in quietly with his peers at Next Step Ministries. He’s a young man of few words, but since he started attending Next Step regularly last summer, he’s learning to relate better to the world around him.  

     “With Sean, we’re working on social skills,” said Jim Pefferly, Next Step Ministries’ job trainer. “Now we’ll see him coming into a room and he’ll greet people and say hello.  His sociability is certainly increasing.  He’s a joy to be around.”

      Pefferly says Sean likes juggling and playing video games, and enjoys making and delivering dog biscuits to customers who purchase them from Next Step. Hope Bones is a fund-raiser for the non-profit organization, a project that provides valuable job training for clients like Sean.  

      Sean’s mom thinks Next Step gives her son a great opportunity to expand his world, and interact with his peers. 

       “Here, he’s social,” she said. “At home, it’s something we can share.  Also, from the work point of view, it encourages him to listen to other people and follow directions so that maybe, if one day he gets a part-time job somewhere, it won’t be unusual for him to follow two-to-three step directions,” she added. 

      Autism has robbed Sean of much of his ability to communicate.  But with the help of his parents, this special young man is building a life of his own, making waves in the swimming pool…and finding his voice among friends at Next Step Ministries.