Opening Doors – and Hearts – to Special Needs Families

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (January 19, 2011) – Many of the parents who attend the Jonathan’s Kids ministry at Glen Ellyn Covenant Church had stopped attending churches elsewhere or didn’t even try because the barriers were too high for families with special needs members.

“They either did not feel welcome or not supported,” says Judy Barg, who leads the ministry that includes support groups for families with a member who has a disability.

It is a common refrain among parents. Too often the churches are not prepared for special needs families, says Steve Burger, director of children, adult, and family ministries for the Department of Christian Formation of the Evangelical Covenant Church. “Some have told families, ‘We’re not equipped to welcome you.’ “

He adds that Covenant congregations are showing more interest in ministering to special needs families, but much work still needs to be done.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 54 million people – about 19 percent of the population – is classified as having some sort of disability. More than 33 million of those are considered to have disabilities that are “severe.”

Just a sampling:

  • According to the report, 11 million people ages six and older need personal assistance with everyday activities that include getting around the house, taking a bath or shower, preparing meals and performing light housework.
  • Three million people ages 15 and older use a wheelchair
  • Nine million individuals use ambulatory aids such as a cane, crutches or walker
  • Another 1.8 million people are unable to see and one million cannot hear

The numbers will continue to grow, Burger says. New technological advances in neonatal care enable at-risk infants with severe disabilities to survive into adulthood. There also has been an increase in disabilities among an aging population that is expanding.

“Some people have said that families with special needs are one of the largest unreached people groups,” notes Burger. Serving families who have members with a disability is a biblical requirement, more possible than people might think, and ultimately rewarding for everyone involved, he adds.

“Jesus spent a whole lot of time with people who have disabilities, welcoming them into the kingdom,” notes Melanee Willenbrecht, who leads the Special Friends ministry at Crossroads Covenant Church in Loveland, Colorado.

“The most important thing kids of grade school age want to know is, ‘Do I belong?’ ” says Burger. “The world often says no. Jesus says yes.”

The welcome must begin even before a family attends for the first time. “We don’t often think about addressing the issue until the need is staring us in the face,” Burger says. “We need to be proactive. Admittedly, that takes time, resources, retraining, and education.”

Being proactive can include making buildings handicap accessible, training members to assist people with special needs, or providing extra activities.

Hope Covenant Church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, started having someone do signing during the service three years before any deaf person attended. People with disabilities also are given the opportunity to assist with the ministry in ways that include ushering and stuffing newsletters.

Families often are in desperate need of services that churches can provide. “Families really need breaks,” says Willenbrecht, whose daughter had Down’s Syndrome and died in infancy. “It’s extremely stressful having a child with special needs.”

Churches can provide respites centered around extra-curricular activities as well as Sunday morning experiences. Crossroads sponsors “party nights” once a month for the children with special needs so that families can get a break. The Christmas party had 150 children, each with a volunteer to help them.

Crossroads and Glen Ellyn also train church members – many of them high school students – to accompany children with special needs to Sunday school and other events. “We hope that volunteers will take on families and help outside the classroom,” says Willenbrecht.

Relationships form much more often than not. “Most of the time, I don’t have to ask which service the kids are coming to – volunteers already know through their connections. It’s amazing, truly amazing,” Willenbrecht says.

Glen Ellyn also includes people with special needs during the worship service. “It’s kind of noisy in the service, but that’s because the kids are enjoying singing along,” says Barg.
“The goal is to give every kid the best worship service possible.”

Volunteers sit with the attendees who have special needs so the families can better participate in the worship services, says Barg. Teenagers from other families will often sit with the special needs children.

“We feel those kids do better with someone else at that time,” explains Barg. “They will be more disruptive with their own parents.”

Parents have told her they would not be able to attend without the help. They also have needed the support group the church offers.

As many as 30 people attend the Glen Ellyn group. Discussions frequently include the best way to work with schools, trying to find caretakers for older family members, and “deadbeat states” not funding obligations to agencies, says Barg.

Crossroads offers a “traditional Bible study” for moms that is mixed generationally. “We have moms of kids just getting diagnosed as well as moms whose kids are 40 years old.”

Leaders say fear often holds churches back from starting ministries. “When you start, it can seem overwhelming,” says Willenbrecht, who now is employed 25 hours a week to coordinate the ministry. “You just need one person with a passion for it. It’s been a lesson to me of what God can do.”

Barg agrees. “Sometimes all you need is a heart. You don’t need a lot of experience.”

She didn’t even plan to start an ongoing ministry, but she and a friend in the church organized a brunch – care for special needs children was provided. “We kind of accidentally started with an outreach event. It got people talking.”

Getting the entire church to support the ministry is vital, Barg says. “Otherwise you have tired parents trying to do it.”

Burger agrees. “It’s great to have a person who is passionate for the ministry. It’s equally important to get the church leadership on board and allow the congregation a voice as you move forward.”

Knight says Hope Covenant intentionally gives responsibilities to people with special needs. The responsibilities may include ushering and helping with mailings.

Starting a special needs ministry doesn’t always go smoothly. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that’s how we learn,” says Willenbrecht.

The denomination also has sought to make its events more accessible for people with disabilities and still is learning from mistakes and successes. CHIC 2009 organizers hired signers for deaf participants during Mainstage events, but the first night “did not go well,” Burger says.

The signers (lower photo) did not have a good line of sight to the people up front and due to technical difficulties were not illuminated well enough when the lights in the rest of the auditorium were turned off. Burger recalls.

“The students were very gracious,” Burger says. “The CHIC staff was very responsive, jumping in that very night to make adjustments for the rest of the event so that everyone was included.”

Several Covenant camps have sponsored experiences for families with special needs members. The schedule includes time for the entire family to be together as well as activities for the members without a disability. Each special needs participant is accompanied by a staff person.

Bayside Covenant Church in Granite Bay, California, offers extensive ministries to families with disabilities. The church also offers volunteer training as well as disability ministry consulting to any church which requests it.

The denomination has established a Disabilities Awareness Network through which churches can share experiences and learn from each other. Churches wanting to share information should call the Covenant Resource Center at 800-338-4332, visit the Covenant website or email staff.

In recent years, the Covenant also formed a Disability Ministries Committee comprised of members involved in serving special needs families. Resources and access to other sources of information are available online.

Millie Lundgren, Covenant Resource Center director, says congregations should consider The Special Needs Ministry Handbook: A Church’s Guide to Reaching Children with Disabilities and Their Families by Amy Rapada, who helped establish a successful ministry at Pine Lake Covenant Church. To read more of the Rapada’s journey and one special Christmas, click here.

Rapada also is the denomination’s representative to the National Council of Churches Committee on Disabilities, as well as a member of the Covenant Disabilities Resource Committee. She periodically offers webinars through the Department of Christian Formation’s “Call-in Café” – see separate story in the online news report for a schedule of January and February events.

The entire church benefits from special needs ministry, says Burger. “We were blessed to always have children with disabilities as part of our ministries.”

“It will change the culture of your whole church,” says Willenbrecht. “This church always has been accepting of anyone, but they really go out of their way to help someone we know has special needs.”

Participating in activities with special needs children also helps other kids develop compassion and understanding. “It gives kids a better sense of the whole kingdom of God,” Burger says. They also have a lot of fun together and form long-lasting friendships.

And, just as importantly, they get an early start on learning to be a community that welcomes everyone.

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