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On World Down Syndrome Day, lessons from unlikely sources

A Vacation Bible School class for adults with special needs includes learning about Scripture, crafts and singing songs alongside teachers Laura Fugitt (left) and Vicki Stranghoner. Photo from Round Grove Baptist Church

Editor’s note: Monday (March 21) is World Down Syndrome Day.

MILLER, Mo. (BP) – Their names are Brant and Grant. They are twins, 48 years old and have Down syndrome. Some might look at them and think there’s little they could contribute at Round Grove Baptist Church.

They would be wrong.

Eight-year-old Hawke Fugitt, who has autism, enjoys a sensory friendly Easter egg hunt. Photo from Fugitt family

When Mark Fugitt walks behind the pulpit each Sunday, he’s assured of at least a few rounds of “Hallelujah! Amen!” from the twins’ direction. It’s like a pitcher taking the mound with one strike already in the count.

When Laura Fugitt stands in front of the adult special needs class she teaches every Sunday, she knows she’s going to see a pure love for Jesus and the Gospel. “They know the Bible. They’re all saved and baptized, and they’re not ashamed of it,” she said.

Days like March 21, recognized as World Down Syndrome Day, resonate with the Fugitts. They’ve experienced the inherent isolation that’s a part of being in the ministry, but also that which comes with being a special needs family. Two of their four children are diagnosed with autism, and so the need for such a ministry is in front of them every morning.

Round Grove had an active special needs ministry before the Fugitts arrived four years ago when Mark answered the call to become pastor.

“That stood out to us,” he said. “If you live it, it’s easier to understand the need for it and appreciate its value. We’re hoping to expand it.”

With an average attendance of 300, Round Grove is one of the larger churches in its area, perched in acres of corn fields in southwest Missouri, with Springfield and Joplin about an hour away.

Isolation can become a fact of life for special needs families. COVID-19 enhanced it, but also helped in a few ways. For a time, everyone understood what it felt like to be away from others. Technology caught up and made church more accessible through live feeds.

Two years later most have returned to pre-COVID living. But many special needs families have not due to concerns over their loved one’s being immunocompromised. Laura Fugitt’s adult class averaged 12-15 pre-Covid, but now has four consistent attendees.

Even without the specter of COVID, those with Down syndrome have shorter life spans. Round Grove has experienced this as well, as several in Laura’s class have died in recent years.

Still, the steps taken by Round Grove have received praise and resulted in more involvement by special needs families. Laura knows what it’s like to soothe an autistic child in the church lobby during the sermon. Round Grove provides a sensory room with privacy but also a calm and quiet place to decompress when a child gets overwhelmed. Items include bean bags, weighted blankets, a ball pit, swings and fidget toys.

Separate events provide more opportunities to connect with the church. A sensory friendly version of an Easter egg hunt last year provided distinct physical boundaries and fewer crowds and noises. Adults took part in their own Vacation Bible School class, learning about missionaries and Scripture, doing crafts and singing songs with lots of visual aids and pictures as the majority of the students can’t read.

Mark Fugitt encouraged churches to look for ways they can reach those families and individuals.

“The need is there. You won’t see it if you haven’t provided some resources, but it’s all over the place,” he said. “We’ve learned over the last several years that you have to develop a custom plan for your families. Listen to them. Every need is different; every family is different.”

But don’t forget the importance of inclusion, added his wife. Train teachers in how to work with individuals with Down syndrome and other special needs. It’s beneficial for both parties, as they learn to communicate with and appreciate each other.

Brant and Grant turn 49 next week, a fact they’ve been announcing since January. Maybe they understand why it’s notable; maybe they don’t. But they celebrate with a vigor most people don’t express.

The difficulty of attending church with a special needs child – the expectations to stay still, stay quiet and generally not cause a scene in a very social setting – can be too much, according to Laura.

“So many families don’t attend church; it’s just too hard,” she said. “They could be considered an unreached people group.”

But, she added, when a church takes those steps to welcome them in, the benefits can be as obvious as a hearty “Hallelujah! Amen!”

“I see that joy in learning about and loving God. Don’t underestimate them.”