JERSEY VILLAGE, Texas (BP) — “Can I come to your church and bring my special needs child?”
The question prompted Nancy Bergeron to launch a new Sunday School class at Jersey Village Baptist Church not long after she began serving as children’s minister five years ago.
“I said, ‘Absolutely. We’ll make room and do whatever we can to minister.'”
The Houston-area church already had a class for teens and young adults with special needs but nothing geared toward kids. Starting with that one child, the Wings class took off, and the mother of that first participant now leads the class.
For families who prefer that their child be mainstreamed, Jersey Village provides a buddy who accompanies the student to a regular classroom to help as needed.
Special needs children also are welcome at the church’s monthly Parents Night Out, giving their parents time away from what Bergeron describes as “weeks that are hard and days that are long.”
“There are special needs families who want to be in church but have just been told no so many times that they have given up,” Bergeron said.
“If the parents are able to be in church and sit under the teaching of God’s Word, it gives them hope and the opportunity to grow spiritually when we care for their children,” she said.
‘Adjust to the needs of the child’
Accommodating people with special needs also is a core conviction of Journey Church, which is set to launch later this year in the Houston-area community of Pearland. In its current outreach beyond the small group that gathers on Sunday nights, sensory-friendly movies are offered along with photography sessions geared toward special needs families.
Church planter Lee Peoples has no trouble understanding the challenge of families with special needs children. He and his wife Sandra have dealt with the doctors, therapy, diet changes and speech delays that are a part of parenting a young child with autism.
“Often in the Gospels Jesus reaches out to those who have been ignored and pushed out by society,” Peoples said. “In many ways in our culture this applies to those with special needs.
“When we launch [the church], we will accommodate the best we can for the families that come,” he said. “Whether it’s a buddy system for kids who need extra help or special classes for those needing focused teaching, our philosophy is to adjust to the needs of the child, not the child adjust to the style of the church.”
Sandra Peoples, in her book “Speechless: Finding God’s Grace in My Son’s Autism,” wrote that special needs families “don’t just show up in your lobby one Sunday and go into their age-appropriate Sunday School classes. They can’t.” Families with a member who has a disability, she noted, are an unreached people group.
“Their special family members have specific needs that must be met. You can show them the love and acceptance of Christ by learning more about their needs and meeting those needs,” Sandra Peoples advised.
‘Something that works’
Kristen Morgan holds what she considers a dream job — minister to special needs at First Baptist Church in Forney, Texas, east of Dallas. Drawing on her public school experience as a behavior specialist, resource and inclusion teacher, and most recently an educational diagnostician, Morgan brainstorms with parents to learn how they’re addressing their child’s needs and helps them pull together resources to develop a strong support system.
While some of the children appear similar based on their disability, Morgan looks at their individual needs in order to “come up with something that works for that kid.”
A child who becomes overstimulated in a large group setting may benefit from a special needs classroom, she said, while those children who can handle mainstreaming have a buddy who offers assistance or redirection when challenges arise.
FBC Forney also provides a sensory room where children can relax in a calm atmosphere with music playing and the lighting kept low. Others who need to expend extra energy have access to a trampoline, balls they can bounce and tactile objects they can touch.
“It’s catered toward that kid’s individual needs at that time,” Morgan said. “They can go there and have their own space.”
A respite program is offered once a month for special needs children and their siblings. For three hours volunteers let children choose from activities as varied as playing a Wii game to arts and craft projects.
“The kids do a talent show where the camera is on and they get to see themselves on the big screen telling jokes, acting or playing instruments,” Morgan said. “It gives them a chance to showcase their abilities and talents, and we all enjoy what is the highlight of the night.”
Kelley McKay, who volunteers for respite care as well as Sunday classes, said, “Parents come back and say, ‘Thank you for taking care of my kid. My husband and I got to go out with each other for the first time in such a long time.'”
McKay views the special needs ministry as an opportunity “to let those parents know their kids matter. We love them, care about their families and want them to have the opportunity to just rest and feel served.”
For the past five years she’s helped Colby, a fifth-grader who doesn’t speak. “When I get to see him, he smiles and recognizes me,” McKay said. “It’s a really neat feeling to have that kind of relationship. These kids have so much to give and so much to teach us about ourselves.”
For Morgan, special needs ministry is an opportunity she’s grateful to lead. “I’m able to do everything I want to do as far as being an evangelist, sharing God’s love and the Word to help children and their families,” she said. “It’s the complete package.”