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G.I.F.T.E.D. with faith: With an open heart, Kyle Winters lives for others

By Maryalene LaPonsie | Photography by Eric Tank

Image: Kyle during a meeting of the G.I.F.T.E.D groupIn many ways, Kyle Winters is just like any other 33-year-old. He has a job, meets up with friends to play basketball and takes classes on the Grand Rapids Community College campus. However, Kyle isn’t your average millennial.
 
Sitting at the dining room table in the house he shares with his parents, he proudly shows off  his collection of medals earned in the Special Olympics. A candle burns nearby in memory of a friend who recently passed away. On the wall hangs a picture of a well in Nigeria named in his honor.
 
Kyle is an exceptional person in more ways than one. A cognitive impairment means he can be slow to answer questions, but he is quick to open his heart. When he heard about the need for clean water half a world away, Kyle had no qualms about handing over his entire paycheck to help dig a well. Closer to home, he has made cards, assembled Christmas baskets and helped deliver Thanksgiving dinners through his home parish, St. Alphonsus in Grand Rapids.
 
“His faith is evident in how he puts others’ concerns before his own,” says Maggie Vugteveen, the St. Alphonsus faith formation director.
 
Kyle’s faith is a quiet one. He is making a difference through little acts of charity, without any wish for recognition or accolades. It’s that type of faith that should inspire us all.
 

Image: A meeting of the G.I.F.T.E.D. group at St. AlphonsusG.I.F.T.E.D. FOUNDING MEMBER

For years, Kyle has attended the Friendship Club at Rockford Baptist Church. The program is designed as an opportunity for adults with special needs to gather weekly for prayer and faith activities.
 
Terri Carmichael, Kyle’s mom, thought a similar program would be a great addition to St. Alphonsus and approached Maggie about the possibility. “She thought it was a great idea,” Terri says.
 
Maggie and Maureen Cromwell, the parish’s faith formation assistant, had actually already been investigating the possibility. Both Maggie and Maureen have family members with special needs themselves. “It became a project that we were both passionate to see become a reality,” Maggie explains.
 
After consulting with the diocese and visiting area groups like the Friendship Club, the two launched the G.I.F.T.E.D. program at St. Alphonsus. Standing for Growing in Faith Together Every Day, G.I.F.T.E.D. is open to any adult with special needs although its current core membership ranges in age from early 20s to mid-30s.
 
“We go in and learn about the Lord,” Kyle says when asked about a typical meeting. The group meets twice a month from October through April to pray, sing and discuss the Sunday Gospel. There is usually also an activity that reinforces the message from that week’s reading.
 
“We’re thankful we’re in a church that supports that,” Terri says.  

‘HERE'S MY PAYCHECK’

While Kyle is a regular presence at St. Alphonsus, his good deeds extend beyond the church walls.
 
The well in Nigeria was dug by the Samuel Omogo Foundation, but the money for it was raised by Kyle, who works two days a week at a Culver’s restaurant. “His first paycheck, he gave the whole amount for the well,” Terri says. As soon as he heard other people didn’t have access to clean water, “He was like, ‘Here’s my paycheck,’” his mom recalls.
 
Image: Kyle holds an image of Nigerian residents with arms uplifted celebrating the new wellWhen friends and family heard of his sacrifice, they were quick to pitch in. Kyle was able to gather the approximately $5,500 needed to dig the well and maintain it for five years. His grandmother, Marge Wilson, is the co-founder of the Samuel Omogo Foundation and was able to facilitate the donation.
 
Now, there is a well in Nigeria bearing a plaque inscribed with both Marge and Kyle’s names. And on a dining room wall in Grand Rapids, there is a photo of grateful residents, with arms uplifted, surrounding the well. 

MOURNING A FRIEND

The well in Nigeria may not be the last one Kyle helps place in the country. He is currently about $2,000 into a fundraising effort to provide a second Nigerian community with access to clean water.
 
However, this time, the well won’t be placed in honor of Kyle. Instead, it will bear the name of James. “My best friend” is how Kyle describes James. The two met nearly 20 years ago in school and had been close ever since. “We’ve done Special Olympics together,” Kyle notes.
 
James died earlier in the year, and Kyle has been grappling with the loss ever since. The dining room table displays a photo and candle lit in memory of James. Kyle listens to music to remember the good times and leans on his family for support.
 
He’s also decided to raise money so his friend can have his own well in Nigeria. On many Saturdays and Sundays, he can be found in front of his grandma’s business, Marge’s Donut Den, selling books and collecting donations. “It’s been really good for Kyle,” Terri says, “to help with his grief.”
 
Through G.I.F.T.E.D. and St. Alphonsus, Kyle has also found strength in his faith. “God’s always there to comfort us in good times and in bad,” he says. 

A KIND HEART AND A GENTLE SPIRIT

Kyle has a number of other activities to keep him busy when he’s not working or at church. Special Olympics and sports are favorite ways to pass the time.
 
“We’re big Notre Dame football fans,” Kyle says with a smile. He isn’t content to simply sit on the sidelines either, as his extensive collection of Special Olympics and 5K medals attest. When asked which sports he plays, Kyle rattles off a long list that includes bowling, bocce, poly hockey and cycling. However, he says basketball is his favorite.
 
Music also plays a big role in the 33-year-old's life. He listens to country music – Garth Brooks is a popular choice in the house – but also sings, drums and has begun dabbling in songwriting.
 
Every Monday, he participates in programs through Artists Creating Together (ACT), a nonprofit that connects teaching artists with individuals with special needs. Through ACT, Kyle has been able to explore different forms of music and perform at venues such as a West Michigan Whitecaps game. “He gets to get out in the community and do some entertaining,” Terri says.
 
Later in the week, Kyle’s off to the Grand Rapids Community College campus where he takes classes through Noorthoek Academy. The academy provides continuing education classes that pick up where special education ends in high school. Through the school, Kyle has learned about diverse topics such as zoology and the solar system. “Right now, we’re learning about the Koreas,” he says.
 
Throughout all of these activities, a sense of contentment and faith permeates. "He’s got a very kind heart and gentle spirit,” Terri says. “He kind of has a direct connection to heaven.”
 
For Kyle, life isn’t about pursuing fame and success. He isn’t seeking the corner office, a big house or a fancy car. Instead, he is focused on quietly doing the Lord’s work, one day at a time.  

Learn more about G.I.F.T.E.D.

THE G.I.F.T.E.D. program is offered at St. Alphonsus and other parishes in the diocese. To learn more about the St. Alphonsus group, contact Maggie Vugteveen at 616-459-5472.