Special needs ministry ensures church never turns anyone away

By Laura Lee

Inspiring program pairs volunteer buddies with children to provide assistance and encouragement.

I remember meeting a single mom and her two sons after a church service one weekend. The eldest did not have a disability but the younger son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder with Psychomotor Retardation at the age of three. As I grew to know this mom, she shared that they had been asked to leave many churches because of her youngest son. The churches didn’t know how to care for him and instead of learning how to serve these families, they excluded them.

In 2008 the UPI Health News published that 14 percent of children in the U.S. had special needs. The article stated that one in five families have a special needs child. The extra care needed to meet the demands of special needs children can be overwhelming for a family, and to be excluded from a place of worship can be disheartening to say the least.

Whether it is ignorance, apathy or a lack of funds, most churches are ill equipped to handle special needs. When Hope Community Church started, we hit the mark in all three categories. We were ignorant of the prevalence of special needs and the ways that we could serve these families. Our staff was limited and dealing with special needs was not on our radar.

Parents had to leave
In the late 90s a new family attended our church and brought their preschool son to the classroom. A volunteer welcomed the family and proceeded to involve their son in the activities. A few minutes into the service I was made aware that the parents had to be retrieved to take care of their son. He had become over-stimulated in the class and had thrown toys, crafts and papers all over the room while hitting the other children and the volunteer.

As I approached the room, I observed the parents picking up their son and saw tears in their eyes as they lovingly gathered his belongings and left the church building. I apologized and asked them to come back but we never saw that family again. At that moment I vowed to never turn away a special needs child from Hope again. This experience was the beginning of our One-on-One Buddy ministry.

Partner child and Buddy
The One-on-One Buddy ministry serves children with special needs from birth through college-aged, as well as their families. We partner a volunteer buddy with a child or student to give them encouragement, support and assistance during our weekend services and events. We believe in inclusion and love seeing our special needs children enjoying their classroom and learning about God and his love for them.

Our special needs ministry volunteers serve with patience and love as they help children learn about God in an environment where they are safe, accepted and cherished. All volunteers have had background checks so parents can rest assured that kids are safe while they enjoy the worship service. We currently serve around 40 children and students and have the same number of volunteers that serve weekly or biweekly.

We have a part-time coordinator who recruits, schedules and trains the volunteers while caring for the families. In addition, she works full time in the local public school system with special needs as an assistant. As our ministry grows we desire to expand this position to meet more of the needs.

Because of the One-on-One Buddy ministry we see families attend church together and hear stories of appreciation for the ministry.

Laura Lee is the executive director of Family Ministry at Hope Community Church, Raleigh, NC.  www.gethope.net www.hopemilestones.net


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