Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends Ministry founder Mertice W. Kelly, seated, poses with staff and participants inside the Treasured Friends Gift Shop July 10.

LAKE WALES – Staff and supporters of Circle of Friends Ministry hosted a grand reopening of their thrift shop at 129 East Stuart Avenue in downtown Lake Wales July 10.

The store has been open for awhile and the ribbon cutting ceremony was an attempt to raise awareness of the work done by the ministry over the past two decades.

Circle of Friends Ministry serves Polk County residents who are disabled. Lake Wales resident Mertice Kelly started the ministry in a gym at Lake Wales Assembly of God, now called IMPACT Church, back in 2001.

Kelly said her daughter, Connie Darlene Fehringer, was born with disabilities. Her daughter was attending Polk Life and Learning Center in Bartow in 1992 when it closed and Kelly says her daughter was transferred.

“Over the years I watched how she was rejected, laughed at, and — while the community did things for other children — they never had anything for her,” Kelly said. “As a mom, it really hurt me really bad, but I could not separate that from being a woman of faith.

“Something inside me just rose up and said ‘I have to do something,’” she continued. “(Individuals with disabilities) want to be loved. They want friends, they want to live and grow — just like you and I do.”

For 15 years, she asked former Lake Wales Assembly of God Pastor AJ Steverson, who passed away in January, to help her form a ministry for disabled people of faith. Kelly said Pastor Steverson replied by saying it didn’t matter how much he cared, it was a matter of how much she cared. Kelly felt it was her calling. First, she used a church gym and, later, a nearby barn to start hosting social jamborees for disabled adults.

The ministry was born.

“We had a blast,” Kelly said.

The fun initially lasted for several months until her daughter Connie passed away.

Asked what has kept her motivated since, Kelly cited her faith.

“I had no idea that when (God) gave me that baby girl, it was all part of his plan,” Kelly said.

In 2013, a building at 105 East Stuart was donated to the ministry. Kelly and Circle of Friends Ministry supporters started providing job training, life skills training and, generally speaking, giving local individuals with disabilities a place to enjoy fellowship. Up until a few years before his passing, Pastor Steverson led church services downtown.

Golfview Church of God Youth Rev. Christopher Massey has since taken over for Pastor Steverson and led the first church service at the facility downtown for several years this past Sunday.

Subsequent services are held on the second and fourth Sunday of every month starting at 2:30 p.m.

“Everybody is welcome to attend,” Rev. Massey said.

The Treasured Friends Gift Shop is not just used to raise money for the ministry. Participants get job training by helping to sell items at the store, price and stock items, plus have healthy interactions with others.

A couple of years ago the Circle of Friends Ministry established the Snack Shack. Sometimes volunteers have cooking classes for participants and ministry supporters decided that participants could go door-to-door and sell items to people working downtown.

Warner University student Meagan Yopp has donated her time as music director and is helping participants put together their second play.

Circle of Friends Ministry Program Director Alison Martin said for a small monthly fee, participants also learn gardening, they read the newspaper each week to learn about current events, get access to computers, get some academic schooling and even learn things like cleaning up after lunch.

The ministry is currently on summer break. Classes start back up August 13.

Those interested in learning more may call (863) 679-2507.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.

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