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LifeWay special needs ministry turns 30

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–This fall LifeWay Christian Resources celebrates the 30th anniversary of publishing printed Sunday School lessons for special needs learners, resources that were rare prior to the late 1970s.

“The thread of neediness and disabilities runs throughout Scripture,” Gene Nabi said as he reflected on LifeWay’s 30-year-old decision to create resources for the special needs community. Nabi, who is now retired, served as LifeWay’s second special needs ministry consultant. “Parents have a desperate need as to what kind of spiritual nurture can be given to their children.”

Originally spearheaded by Doris Monroe, the special needs ministry area of LifeWay’s church resources division has led the way in publishing leader and learner resources that encourage churches to include everyone in the Great Commission.

LifeWay’s first dated Sunday School materials for the special needs community were released in 1979. The Sunday School Resource Kit for Teaching the Mentally Retarded was intended for use with children.

In the 1980s, however, research revealed most of the learners in special needs classes were adults. In response, the Special Education Resource Kit that LifeWay released in 1989 could be used with adults for the first time. The resources were expanded throughout the 1990s and were renamed Access in 2000.

The curriculum has been adapted as societal needs have changed. Trends in public special education continually influence the teaching strategies incorporated in updated versions of the curriculum. For instance, in the 1990s public schools emphasized mainstreaming special needs students — incorporating them into the larger educational population — and LifeWay responded by including adaptation tips for special needs children within the core children’s Sunday School resources.

LifeWay now encourages a range of options for children with special needs, including learning buddies, separate classes and other options. In 2007, LifeWay launched “Bible Teaching for Kids: Special Buddies,” curriculum geared toward children in first through sixth grade.

“We’ve gone from our first publication, which was all black and white text, to a multisensory curriculum filled with colorful visuals and hands-on teaching ideas,” said special needs resources editor Ellen Beene, who has been with LifeWay for 24 years.

Before discovering Access, Jo Ann Banks of Asheville, N.C., rewrote all of her materials from a regular adult lesson and created images on a flannelgraph for her adult special needs classes.

“Once I found Access, I wasn’t frustrated anymore,” Banks said.

Daphne Lyon of Garner, N.C., has a 24-year-old daughter, Kate, with Down syndrome. Lyon attended the special needs track of The Power of the Connected Sunday School Conference (aka Sunday School Week) at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C., in July.

Lyon is a member of Aversboro Road Baptist Church in Garner, which has an active special needs department that offers three classes and provides respite and activities once a month for families of children with special needs. Her church also uses the Access and Special Buddies materials published by LifeWay.

“The materials are so good,” Lyon said.

So good, in fact, Lyon said when her daughter’s Special Olympics softball competition conflicted with “High Attendance Sunday,” Lyon asked permission to do the lesson onsite during the games. The engaging and adaptable material helped her present the lesson not only to her daughter’s team but also to a team from another town that joined in and actively participated.

“I think we had the highest numbers for high attendance and the highest newcomer numbers,” Lyon said with a smile.

Dianne Reynolds of Gainesville, Fla., also was at the Ridgecrest event. She attended hoping to uncover more LifeWay resources for the special needs ministry task force she leads at Northwest Baptist Church. As the parent of a child with special needs, Reynolds is concerned with reaching an underserved population — people with special needs and their families.

Most programs in the church will accept any volunteer who is willing to serve, but special needs ministry is a bit different.

“Special needs is the one area where churches tend to seek only volunteers who have a specific calling to special needs ministry or who have prior experience,” said Carlton McDaniel, LifeWay’s current special needs ministry specialist. “In any other area of service, you’re expected to be untrained when you volunteer.”

In the past, few ministry resources were available to prepare people for volunteering among the special needs community. McDaniel said that has changed.

“Today there are multiple resources and training opportunities available for volunteers who want to serve in special needs ministry,” he said. “Churches have access to all the support they need to equip leaders for reaching families with special needs.

“Those old excuses are disappearing.”
Andrea Higgins is a freelance writer for LifeWay who lives in North Carolina.

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