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Ministry brings special needs families ‘out of the woodwork’

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EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Lisa Nolan wondered if her son Chase would ever understand Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.

Chase, now 13, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — a form of autism. When Chase was younger, Lisa and her husband Jeff often had to leave worship services because they were too stimulating for him.

As Chase got older and the Nolans began to learn more about how to deal with Chase, he was able to go to worship and to Sunday School.

“I know seeds were planted along the way,” Lisa said. But it wasn’t until Chase became involved in a ministry at his church, Judson Baptist in Nashville, Tenn., that those seeds sprouted. That ministry — Stone Soup — gave Chase just the opportunity he needed to start talking about Jesus with others.

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“As a volunteer, he started verbalizing about Jesus to participants in the ministry,” Lisa said. “Volunteering met Chase’s needs by giving him an opportunity to express God’s love in just a way that was special to him. He flourished, and in less than two years of volunteering for Stone Soup confessed Jesus as his personal Savior.”

As a child with special needs, Chase could have been a Stone Soup participant. Instead, “I help out with the children,” he said. “I mostly help with Clarisa who has Down syndrome. She likes playing basketball so I get her basketballs and she shoots hook shots. She always makes them, but I don’t know how.”

Stone Soup is a ministry designed to build a community among families with a child or young adult with special needs, providing a loving and safe environment not only for Sunday School and worship services but also for monthly parents’ nights out, a special camp during the Christmas season and other activities and support. The ministry’s name is derived from an old French children’s tale about a village that comes together for a common cause out of unlikely circumstances.

One Friday every month, volunteers provide care for special needs children and young adults and their siblings so parents can have a date night.

“It’s funny, we’ve had couples come to drop their kids off and they’re a little skeptical at first,” said Louis Davis, minister of education at the Nashville-area Thompson Station Church where a Stone Soup ministry has been in operation for a year. “Mom will come in with no makeup on and wearing a sweatsuit, dad will still be dressed in work clothes and they’ll drop their kids off. By about the third month, mom is coming in and she’s got her makeup on and a nice outfit and dad’s cleaned up since work. And that’s really what the whole program is about — strengthening these families. They’ve dealt with so much disappointment in trying to meet all the needs of their children. We’re trying to change that.

“These are tough families — families with true grit,” Davis added. “It’s a miracle in itself that they’re still married because the vast majority of couples with a special needs child divorce. It’s a constant struggle for them — 24/7 — every day of the year.

“They’ve experienced disappointment — even from churches because they’ve been turned away, so they become gun-shy,” Davis said. “If they continue to worship, mom will stay home one week and dad the next, so they don’t get to worship together. Some of these couples haven’t had a night out together in seven or eight years. When they get one, they look at each other and wonder what they should do. I had one couple come back after a Stone Soup Friday night and tell me they just went to dinner and then walked around Lowe’s.”

The idea for Stone Soup was conceived by Lynn and Ross McGary, but Ross said it was Lynn’s vision that led to its development. Lynn, who died of cancer in January, came from a missionary family, McGary said. “Her father — John Hatcher — and brothers are widely regarded as very effective church planters in Brazil.”

With degrees in teaching and special education, Lynn developed special education programs in public and private schools in several states. Five years ago, she took that experience and developed Stone Soup at Judson.

“We had seen churches try and fail with programs they’d developed for families of children with special needs,” Ross said. “Most churches have a buddy program and they try to mainstream the kids into a class. Occasionally, they may have a special class for these kids. But usually these efforts don’t last longer than about nine months. Rarely does the enthusiasm for these kinds of programs last more than about two years.”

Stone Soup’s emphasis, meanwhile, is to design an approach for the kids that meets their physical, spiritual and mental needs. At Judson, the ministry was given 7,000 square feet of space to use.

At Thompson Station, the very best adult Sunday School class space was set aside for Stone Soup. “We wanted to create a sensory specific room with music and lights that had a calming effect,” Davis said. “We didn’t just want a drop-off room in some out of the way corner somewhere. So we took the very best adult education space we had because we felt like God was saying we needed to do this for the least of these.”

Davis believes that one of the reasons Stone Soup is so well received is because of its focus on outreach. The church first offers families the monthly Friday date night from 6:30-10, recruiting sufficient volunteers to work one-on-one with all the kids there. Snacks, crafts, games and Bible stories are all part of the evening. The volunteers love the experiences they share with the kids and often want to get involved in the Sunday morning experience. The volunteers include entire families so even the younger kids get an opportunity to help with the children with special needs.

Chase’s 12-year-old sister Elaina also is a Stone Soup volunteer. “I watched her work with a child who I just thought was non-communicative because she wouldn’t speak to me or anyone else who tried to talk to her,” Lisa Nolan said. “Elaina worked with her a while and had her chatting like they were best friends. It was amazing and exciting.”

Stone Soup’s core philosophy is to look at each person’s abilities — not their disabilities.

“Once you get focused on the right things — that we’re all made in God’s image — and you start looking for those characteristics in others, you can have a successful ministry,” McGary said. “When we train volunteers for Stone Soup, Lynn will teach them a game and challenge them to find the ways God’s image is expressed in our campers [Stone Soup participants]. Once the volunteers start looking for those things, they see abilities they never imagined going on.”

So, is Stone Soup making a difference?

“We’ve had whole families saved as a result of this program,” aid. “And some of them were way out there with their beliefs. Many are mad at God about the situation with their child. And we’ve even dealt with some who have been asked to leave a church because the church wasn’t able to meet their needs.

“We’ve got a couple bringing their child to Stone Soup Friday nights who told me they weren’t Christians and weren’t planning on becoming Christians, and they still aren’t, but I see their hearts softening,” McGary added.

“We are getting many new families coming to church because of Stone Soup making accommodations for their kids on Sunday morning with Sunday School so the whole family can attend church,” said Melissa Davis, who coordinates the ministry at Thompson Station Church.

One of those families is Jeff and Christy Baggett whose 10-year-old daughter Presley has a form of cerebral palsy. Baggett, who’s been a Thompson Station member for a year, said the holiday camp and the monthly parents’ night out have been a blessing in his and Christy’s life.

“There aren’t many babysitters we can trust or who know what to do with Presley,” Baggett said. “Stone Soup has been really helpful because it’s given us the opportunity to just go out for dinner — some one-on-one time to focus on our relationship. We don’t get much of that.”

Baggett added that the time Presley has spent with other children through Stone Soup has enhanced her social skills. “Presley doesn’t get invited to stuff like other kids do,” he said. “Because of that, her social skills weren’t really good. She’s getting more social with the other kids through the program and she loves it. She even got to participate in Vacation Bible School this past summer. She absolutely loved that, and we thought that was incredible.”

In addition to Judson Baptist and Thompson Station Church, a Stone Soup ministry has been launched at Faith Baptist Church in Monroe, Ga., and First Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn. Three years ago, officials with Joni Eareckson Tada’s organization, Joni and Friends — an organization founded to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community throughout the world — visited Stone Soup and encouraged the McGarys to make it a national effort.

“We’re in the process of setting this up so it can be done anywhere in the country,” McGary said. “Most people know at least one family with a child who has special needs. We’ve got a special telephone survey that we will do at no cost for a church that wants to start a Stone Soup outreach designed to help bring these families out of the woodwork.”
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Dawn Ferguson is a correspondent for the Baptist & Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. For more information on Stone Soup as well as ideas on how to start a ministry in your church, visit www.stonesoupnews.com. For a short video about the benefits of the program and its outreach in the community, go to www.stonesoupnews.com/outreach.cfm.

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