Sunday, 30 August 2009


Jason Epps has cerebral palsy but has the attitude of a marathon runner. What others see as a disability, Jason views as a challenge.
This summer, instead of training on the track, he's flexing his brain. Along with 16,000 other youngsters across the country, Jason is preparing for a chance to compete at the first National Bible Bee in Washington.
"The way I look at it, it's just a way for me to get stronger," says the 16-year-old Freedom High School junior.
Jason's mom, Christine, agrees. "He has a lot of goals in mind, and he doesn't let anything stop him," she says. "If he were just a regular kid running around, then he wouldn't have the impact on people like he does."
The Bible Bee will begin with local contests Sept. 12. The children, ages 7 to 18, will compete in either a primary, junior or senior age group. The testing style is similar to Scripps National Spelling Bee, but instead of being quizzed on spelling "conscientious," contestants hone up on biblical knowledge. The Bible Bee includes a written exam. (For sample questions, visit
There will be 100 finalists from each age group in the national competition. It will be held Nov. 5 and 6 in Washington.
The Bible Bee, sponsored by the Shelby Kennedy Foundation, is awarding more than $260,000 in prize money, with $100,000 given to the first-place winner in the 15 to 18 age group.
Jason says that participating in the bee is a chance to grow his faith. Whether he wins or not, going to nationals "would just be a wonderful experience," he says. "I just think that no matter what happens, this has been a great experience because I've learned tools that I would never have known otherwise."
Still, Jason admits, with a smile, that any help he can get with paying for college would be nice. It's easy to forget that Jason uses a wheelchair. The honors student already has three colleges he's considering.
"I'm just torn because part of me wants to go to Duke for seminary," he says, adding that he leaves tough decisions to the Almighty. "Personally, if God says 'go here,' who am I to debate with him?"
Preparing with songs and games
For now, Jason, along with other youths, is preparing for the Bible Bee. The practices hardly seem like work. Each session consists of songs and games.
Blake Lambson, 11, has memorized numerous verses this summer. He struggles to pick a favorite. "I like all of 'em," he says. The sixth-grader at Burns Middle School does not anticipate competing beyond the local level.
But if he did make it to the nationals? "It'd be pretty awesome, and I'd be really nervous," he says.
Jodie Gregory of Brandon takes her children, 11-year-old triplets and a 12-year-old, to practice sessions at Bell Shoals Baptist Church. She considers the Bible Bee a great parenting tool.
"I want my kids to have a moral compass to help them make decisions in their life," she says. "I think that the Bible is a really good compass."
Jill Cravens, chairwoman of the Lutz Bible Bee group, has three boys, ages 6, 9, and 11, participating in the Lutz competition. Cravens says she always struggled memorizing verses, and she's impressed by the children's dedication.
"The children are truly capable of doing much more than we ever thought they could do," she says. "Instead of one verse monthly, the kids are learning two or three a day."
Doreen Reyson, a mother of seven, is chairwoman for the Brandon area Bible Bee. Her daughter Rachel, 12, wears a nametag heavy with multicolored beads.
"Each bead means a certain thing that we've memorized," Rachel says. In her quest to earn beads, Rachel has delved into the lives of biblical characters. Her favorite? "Joseph," she says, "because he had a lot of struggles in his life, and yet he still held on to God, kept going."
One verse at a time
With the Sept. 12 contest looming, Reyson stresses the need for volunteer proctors. To ensure fairness, "we need people who are not related to the kids," she says.
Unable to volunteer? Reyson says donations are appreciated and help cover the cost of test materials and utilities for use of building space. Although Bell Shoals has given the group free use of two rooms, Reyson wants to reimburse the church for some expenses. Also, she has asked every family with a participating child to raise $100 toward the cause.
That money will offset expenses and go into a kitty for children who make it to the national competition to help pay for travel and hotel costs.
Are any Tampa children contenders for prize money? With 16,000 participating across the country, Reyson says, it's hard to predict. But these kids aren't cutthroat competitive, they're simply having fun learning the Bible.
"Just the reward of having it in our hearts and the treasure of that has been the biggest focus," she says. "Whether they just memorized one Scripture or if they memorized all 300, they're going to walk away as a winner."