Stewartstown (Pennsylvania) Baptist Church wanted to teach the special-needs children in their community—and their parents and siblings—about God's love. They figured out some low-cost, high-impact ways to make it happen.
The church offers bimonthly respite nights as an outreach to the community. Special-needs children and their siblings come to the church for a fun night while the parents get a date night, knowing their children are in a safe place at the church with people able to provide the quality of care their youngsters need.
On Sundays, the church pairs special-needs children with volunteers in what they call the "buddy system." Buddies sit with the children, support them, and assist them in the church's fully-integrated Sunday school, Awana program, and worship services.
It's a ministry that seems to be as much a blessing to the buddies as it is to the families of the special-needs children.
"There's just something real special about helping these little ones feel accepted and wanted," said Joan Theisen, who has been a buddy for about a year. "When you can be a buffer to help the children melt into the group and not feel they stand out, that's a good feeling."
Matt and Amy Hamulack wanted to be in church with their three children, but their daughter Addison is autistic and they didn't feel comfortable in other churches they visited.
"I look at that as the most important thing—to know God and Jesus and to teach the kids," Matt Hamulack said. "We didn't know where to go, and then we heard about the respite nights this church offers.
"The big thing is [Pastor] Lee and [his wife] Sandra have a special-needs child," Hamulack said. "Knowing there is someone who understands, someone who 'gets it,' and someone to help, that's a big deal for parents like us."
Lee and Sandra Peoples, along with their two sons (who were two years old and four months old at the time) were called to lead the church in 2008. Two years later, a church member who worked as an occupational therapist called to their attention that their son appeared not to have age-appropriate motor skills.
A slate of tests determined James was autistic.
"I felt relieved," Sandra Peoples said. "Because we had a diagnosis, a name, then we knew what to do next. Lee was in shock; I was in warrior mode. I didn't cry after we heard the diagnosis; Lee did."
The pastor nodded. "For me, to see he was never going to be like other kids, it was the death of a dream. You have to change your mind around it.
"In the first year after the diagnosis, James wasn't invited to the birthday party of a peer," the pastor continued. "That's the thing you're more aware of. Everything makes you feel different . . . With what I've seen and heard and learned since the diagnosis, I now believe families with special needs to be an unreached people group."
Nicole Filack, an occupational therapist, and Ashley Norris, a special education teacher, are among the 135 people who attend Stewartstown Baptist. They went to the pastor about a year after his son's diagnosis with a concept for a new ministry. They wanted to reach special-needs families in the area with a three-hour Friday night respite event every other month so parents could have a night out. Soon after, the buddy system was birthed so the church could integrate the families it had reached through the respite night outreaches.
"We're trying to teach them about God's Word and to provide an environment where parents feel comfortable, so they can learn more about God's Word themselves," Norris said. "We can tell they [the children] like the opportunity for the special attention they receive from their buddies.
"Everything we do, we make accommodations for those with special needs," Norris said. "You train your people to a certain point, but basically you just get to know the children. Some like to be touched; some, not. Some are verbal; some, not."
Teachers are taught the signs of epilepsy and how to help a child who is having a seizure, as well as basic first aid. They are also trained in how to gently and lovingly work with and assist the children, rather than doing tasks for them.
An unanticipated benefit of including special-needs children is that other students come to understand, accept, and accommodate people who are "different," which adds a broader dimension to their worldview, Norris said. The occasional aberrant behavior of special needs youngsters is accepted by the congregation, she added. "Our church has learned to not take ourselves so seriously.
"Children with special needs will change a church," Norris continued. "Some churches are scared of the dynamics, but we believe every church—no matter how small—can do something."