With remarks from Lisa Bernier, Clark Stephens, Brenda Sanniec, and Clint Sanniec.
Chandler, AZ – Some of God’s best stories start with a child. He used a poor boy with five loaves of bread and two small fish to feed more than 5,000 (John 6). He called David as a teenager to fight Goliath (1 Samuel 17). And Jesus once told His disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10). As the VINE program at Valley Christian prepares to graduate its 100th student at the 2019 Commencement Ceremony, we remember that it was a boy who was the first to believe.
In 2001, Clint Sanniec was a 4th grader with an older brother he greatly admired. Kyle, a freshman at Valley Christian High School, was not only gifted in the classroom (Kyle is now an plastic surgeon), but he was a standout soccer and football player. Like many younger brothers, Clint couldn’t wait to attend Valley Christian so that he could continue his brother’s legacy. There was one issue, however: Clint had some learning disabilities and was attending a school more suited to his needs, the type of school he would likely attend for high school, as well.
Although many people, including his parents, tried to convince him that Valley Christian was probably not the best fit for him, he was undaunted. He prayed continually. For five years, he told anyone that would listen that God would bring someone to Valley Christian to teach him and that he would one day attend the same school as his brother.
In December of 2005, Principal Clark Stephens got a phone call.
“I received a call from someone I didn’t know, stating they were an accountant for an unnamed person who wanted to remain anonymous. The accountant said that the client wanted to make a sizeable donation to Valley Christian if we would start an education program for students with learning disabilities who would normally not be able to attend a Christian high school.
“After giving me the potential number the donor had in mind, she asked me if I would be willing to prepare a budget and a plan to create such a program. So I got to work.”
Clark met with one of Clint’s favorite teachers at his current school, gaining a wealth of information about special education. After creating a preliminary budget, he advised the Board of Directors about the call he had received. The Board’s time was spent trying to determine whether a special education program for a school that was without one for 23 years – and that was on a limited budget – was not only feasible, but wise.
Armed with the promise of funding, they determined it was both.
“With the Board’s approval, I posted the Director’s position and a brief description of what we were considering on the Arizona Department of Education website. Soon after, I received a call from a Senior Special Education Manager at a local school, Lisa (Walker) Bernier, and after reviewing her résumé, we began to talk about this exciting project. We had some great, imaginative discussions, dreaming of something brand new.”
It takes a certain type of person to work in education. It takes someone even more unique to work in special education. And Lisa Bernier was no exception.
“Lisa was very ready to be a pioneer in this program. She quickly understood and appreciated the strengths, traditions and history of Valley Christian and sought to preserve the best of those. She saw how the school had tried to meet student needs in this area before, and how this new program could make a wonderful difference in the lives of students and their families.
“Her love and empathy for students who struggled with school programs was sympathetic, deep, and abiding.”
Early in 2006, Lisa was brought on to the administrative staff, with the purpose of launching the special education program in August. But Clark knew it wasn’t just the program-specific staff that would be impacted.
“We engaged the whole faculty and staff to the possibilities of this change, and they fully engaged in discussions of how it might change the culture of the school. All in all, the faculty embraced the new program and we all committed to joining to make it a success as we committed our plans to God.”
Around that time, the singular donation came in. It was four times larger than the annual budget to run the program. After all, the donor insisted, the students that entered as freshmen would eventually graduate as seniors. The donor wanted to make sure the program had a lasting impact. Clark and the team were watching things take shape.
“What started as a brainstorm in December became a fully-funded, fully-staffed, fully-approved reality within just a few months. God had providential plans for this program.”
Shortly thereafter, there was a name for the program.
“One of our English teachers, Drew Streeter, came up with VINE, or Valley’s Individual Needs Enhancement. He took the idea from John 15, when Jesus declares ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener… Every branch that does bear fruit, [my Father] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.’ The name declared that we wanted to serve individuals whose particular needs made it difficult at times to fit into school. And it appreciated that students have what it takes to succeed when their own strengths are identified, strengthened, and supported.”
In the fall of 2006 – the beginning of Clint’s freshman year, and five years after he first prayed that it would happen – the VINE program began.
Clint was in classes at Valley Christian, just like his older brother. He was taking tests, walking the halls, and eating lunch, just like his older brother. He was even playing football, just like his older brother. And as a senior in 2009, Clint did something not even his brother accomplished – he won a state championship as the starting Kicker on the football team.
“I have so many great memories of Valley Christian, but winning the state championship is a forever memory,” Clint reflected. “Football coaches and the VINE teachers had the biggest impact on me while I was at Valley.”
Clint now works for a chiropractor’s office in Chandler and a spa in Tempe, all while managing his own mobile massage service. When Clint was asked what advice he would give to current students at Valley Christian, he pointed them in a very specific direction.
“The advice I would give is, when life gets hard, and in both the good times and the bad times, always turn to God. Tell him what you’re really thinking and what your heart desires. Praise Him for the good and the bad. God is good, all the time.”
For Lisa Bernier, God’s goodness and sovereign intervention came full circle two years into running the program.
“There was an evening class at my church for which I was a facilitator. It was in one of our discussions that, through this young man’s mother, the generous donor to the VINE program and I were revealed to one another.
“We marveled through tears that our great God would choose us – ordinary people – to be a part of influencing the eternity of many students and families. It was a reminder for us that the VINE program is a true God story.”
After seven years of running the program, Lisa handed off the VINE program to Barbara Hunsaker, who – according to Lisa – “has taken the program to the next level.” Under Barbara’s leadership, more than 11% of the high school students in 2018-19 are part of the VINE program. And when Valley Christian launched its junior high school in the fall of 2018, more than 10% of the 6th through 8th grade students were being educated by Barbara and her team.
“We are humbled when we think of how many families we have been able to minister to through our VINE program,” said Barb. “I am so grateful to those who had the foresight and passion to ‘widen’ the doors at Valley Christian, and I’m especially grateful for the families who have entrusted their students to our program.”
As Lisa says it, the VINE program exists primarily because of a few faithful believers. One of them, at the time, a child.
“The VINE program exists because of the faith of one young man, as well as the obedience of one woman, and the vision of another. And it continues to grow because of the many other Christ-followers with vision that move it forward for the sake of those who need special mercy.”
In 2001, Clint Sanniec dreamed of being like his older brother. At the Commencement Ceremony in 2010, Clint walked across the stage and was given his hard-earned diploma from Valley Christian, just like his brother. And in 2019, more than 100 other high school seniors will have had the opportunity to do the same.
In 2001, Clint was in 4th grade, dreaming of being just like his brother. Today, 4th graders can dream of being just like Clint.