Church's outreach to families with special needs children: 'a major need'
COLLEYVILLE, Texas (BP)--"When I go home, I can't imagine what these people do on a daily basis. They have amazing strength! We're just such a small part of ministering to them," said Lisa Wertz, referring to her church's monthly ministry to special needs families.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 53 million Americans have disabilities, 33 million of which are severe. Therefore, 33 million American families deal daily with extra doctor visits, special care and overcoming obstacles to fit in with society. One obstacle these families often face is a lack of acceptance in churches. Wertz, as children's ministry director at First Baptist Church in Colleyville, Texas, is concerned that about 90 percent of special needs families are unchurched.
In September 2002, First Baptist Colleyville began its Evening Stars Respite Care ministry, which provides temporary relief to the caregivers of special needs children in the community. About 38 families from the mid-cities area of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex bring their special needs children and siblings to a once-per-month free childcare event. Some parents drive up to 40 miles to get this much-needed break from caregiving, to enjoy about four precious hours of free time.
Erica Freeman, who directs Evening Stars outreach, is a physical therapist who works with special needs children. She first got a vision for the ministry when she was a college student in Lubbock and saw a similar ministry at a church there. "At the time I thought, 'Boy, that is something I would really like to do down the road when I get settled," she recounted. Later, she and her husband Clint moved to the Dallas area and joined First Baptist Colleyville. "We got settled in a church that we felt was reaching out to the community in so many ways, and we knew it was the right place to do it."
About the same time, church members Francis and Harold Hiner expressed a desire for a special needs ministry at the church. The Hiners have an adult daughter who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child and who also shows signs of autism. They know firsthand about the difficulties of finding a church that welcomes children and families with special needs.
"When our daughter was small, it wasn't a big problem because she wasn't real disruptive. She likes to read and loves to hear Bible stories," Francis said. But when she was about 10, she no longer fit in with her peers. The family moved often, as Harold was in the Air Force and later in the aerospace industry. They would visit churches until they found one that seemed willing to work with them to provide for their daughter. They could always tell which churches did not want them. "They don't tell you that, but you can tell."
Francis recalled the difficulty she had locating a church on one of their moves. After making many discouraging phone calls to churches seeking a place that would welcome them, she finally found a church with a pastor who had two special needs children. "They welcomed us with open arms because they knew what we were going through," she said.
The Hiners ultimately returned to the mid-cities area and became a part of First Baptist Colleyville. "Since it was such a huge church focused on community outreach, we felt there was a need for a ministry there," Francis said. "People don't understand that there is a major need for this."
The Freemans and the Hiners were paired up to organize Evening Stars. Freeman, along with children's ministry director Wertz, researched several respite care programs, and Freeman took on the coordinator role for Evening Stars. Francis and Harold Hiner served as advisers and workers in the ministry for eight months until enough volunteers were on board. Since the ministry is one-on-one, the church needs as many volunteers as they have children each week.
"If we have 35 kids, we have 35 volunteers," Freeman said. Each volunteer goes through an application process to determine his or her best ministry position. Volunteers may serve in a support capacity, or work with a special needs child, or with a sibling of a special needs child. Many find ways to use their vocational skills in ministry. Evening Stars currently has four nurses, a doctor, a counselor and several special education teachers on their volunteer list.
Becky Harber, wife of pastor Frank Harber, praised the dedication of the workers. "Our volunteers really put the kids first. They need lots of energy and patience, and they really give their all."
Many of the children are paired with the same volunteers each time and grow attached to that person. One little girl has Rett's syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes multiple and profound disabilities. She is wheelchair-bound and cannot communicate other than expressing emotions such as happiness or sadness. "There is a volunteer that she has really bonded with -- she's actually a nurse -- and the parents are just so thankful for this volunteer," Freeman recounted.
One couple celebrating an anniversary brought their four children to Evening Stars so that they could spend some time alone together for the first time in three years. "They came back and said all they did was go to the lake and sit for three hours and talk," Freeman noted.
As a physical therapist involved in home care, she said, "I see it in the homes -- what it does to adult parents. There appears to be a lot of divorce in these situations. So I'm glad we can allow married couples to have time together -- to have some relief. This couple is always so supportive and thankful for the program."
To take advantage of Evening Stars, parents complete an application providing the details of each child's specific needs. The outreach accepts children with special needs who do not require constant nursing care, and their siblings up to age 12. So far the ministry has dealt with about 15 different disabilities, such as Down's syndrome, epilepsy, autism, cerebral palsy, psychological and emotional disorders, Beals' syndrome, blindness, and hearing impairments. Several children have multiple disabilities. "We haven't turned anyone away yet, but it is on a case-by-case basis," Wertz said.
Parents must make reservations two weeks in advance for each monthly respite night. Volunteers are pre-assigned to children and have already become familiar with that child's needs. Each volunteer greets his or her child at the check-in table. Young children and older ones who are non-ambulatory are taken to age appropriate rooms in the church's preschool and nursery area.
Older children go with their volunteers to The Jungle, where they play in the children's ministry large group room equipped with an indoor jungle gym facility, games and coloring stations. After wearing themselves out during a lengthy time of free play, children are directed to other activities such as snacks, videos, music, crafts or story time.
Several special needs families have joined the church as a result of the Evening Stars ministry. Dale Moldon, the church's connections minister, recently contacted a family that had visited the services for the first time. When he asked, "How did you hear about the church?" they told him they had been bringing their child to Evening Stars for a while and had just become able to attend the church services.
The Hiners, who helped organize Evening Stars, now focus on teaching a special needs Sunday School class, providing an opportunity for parents to attend church without worrying about their child. The parents of one of their students had not been able to attend church together in seven years because there was no one to keep their son. "It's rewarding to know that the parents can go to church and be a part of a Christian group," Hiner said.
Freeman stated that several families have joined, and some attend other churches. "But," she said, "most are unchurched. We try to reach out to that group." They give them lots of information about the church, and invite them to various special events. Last year, they had a Christmas party for the families to attend.
"A lot of them come once -- they at least try," Freeman said. "Most of them, I know, have never gone to church before. I feel like they are seeing how much we love them and their children, and how much Christ loves them. I feel like we're getting there on some of them. It is truly a community outreach."
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: COLORFUL MINISTRY, WALKING WITH A STAR, MAKING THE STRETCH, FINDING A STAR and JOINING THE STARS.