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Special Needs: No Child Left Behind

Amy Switzer

Helping Families

Our special needs ministry reaches entire families -- not only the children with special needs -- because entire families are impacted by a child's disability. As children's ministers, we know how important it is for families to attend church together. But families also need the opportunity to go to Bible studies, church events, and other activities together. They need our church's acceptance, support, and assistance. So we've designed these special needs programs specifically around families.

Sunday School -- The goal of our Sunday school is to allow families to attend church together. Parents don't have to worry about who'll take care of their child or who'll have to stay home. Each child has the option of our contained special needs classroom or the buddy program, where he or she can attend regular Sunday school with an assigned buddy.

FunFest -- This is our respite program, and it gives parents the opportunity to recharge and relax. Parents drop off all their children with us on the first Friday of the month -- leaving adults with four hours of alone time. Siblings of kids with special needs get to hang out with other siblings experiencing the same struggles and joys. Children with special needs get to see their friends and have fun.

Sibling Saturdays -- During one potluck our families mentioned that often the majority of their attention must be focused on a child with special needs, resulting in less time with the other children. After that conversation, Sibling Saturday was born. Sibling Saturday allows families to spend quality time once per month with their other children while our ministry provides a free, fun-filled day of activities for children with special needs in a safe, loving environment.

Moms Night Out -- Moms can fellowship and network with other moms of children with special needs through Moms Night Out. This program lets moms refuel, relax, and share with other moms living in similar circum­stances. During our first Moms Night Out, we worked on a scrapbook and enjoyed one another's company.

Support -- We support families in other ways as well. We minister to families -- including those outside our church -- by hosting speakers who address topics relevant to special needs families. We have an additional respite program called Drop-and-Shop in December to give parents time to finish Christmas details or take a break from the season's hustle. Each summer our ministry offers an adapted VBS program the same week that our church sponsors regular VBS so children with special needs aren't left out. Each year our ministry also sponsors one family for a one-week special needs family camp.

Starting Small

I once thought it was necessary to have a structured program completely set up and prepared for every child with every special need known before the first child walked through the door. Here's the real-world wake-up call to that thinking: You can never be totally prepared for every person who attends your church. Each child is unique, and each child's needs are unique. It's impossible to be prepared for everything that might come up. But as long as you accept and love everyone who enters God's house, he'll provide the help you need.

So if you've ever considered starting a special needs program, be encouraged by our experience. You don't need a long list of programs and activities to start a special needs ministry. What you do need is to start with what God's given you. Here's how.

  • Pray. First, pray that God will lead your church in creating this ministry. Pray for the right people to coordinate and volunteer.
  • Survey. Survey your church. Learn your church's current needs. There are already people in your church and community who can benefit. Begin with their needs.
  • Recruit. Look for the right volunteers and train them to minister to the people in your church. Sponsor a special needs awareness Sunday to help educate your congregation and spark interest.
  • Research. Visit other churches with special needs ministries. Interview the people involved to learn more. Do research. There are a variety of resources available that can give you sample documents, schedules, curriculum, and ideas.
  • Trust. This special needs ministry is God's ministry, not yours. God provides volunteers, materials, funds, and most importantly, the amazing families who will minister to you every bit as much as you will minister to them.
  • Plan. Create a strategic planning team for your special needs ministry consisting of parents, volunteers, and leaders from your church. Together we've completed a strategic plan to guide our ministry over the next five years.
  • Envision. Draft a clear mission and purpose statement to use everywhere in your ministry. Our mission is to minister to those with special needs and their families by leading them into a deeper relationship with Jesus while helping them discover and exercise their spiritual gifts. Our purpose is to minister to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people with special needs and their families.
  • Reach out. Support other churches with their special needs ministries. We work with our community to minister to our neighbors with special needs.
  • Focus. Focus on four main areas: individuals, families, churches, and community. We support and meet specific needs of individuals so they can become church members while fulfilling their purpose. Our church continually contributes to these families' lives and needs. We provide accessibility to church activities to help provide spiritual growth while their physical and emotional needs are being met. Finally, we work to increase awareness and acceptance of people with special needs in our community.
  • Protect. -- Ensure that your church is covered by insurance before implementing a program. One vital aspect of this is release and information forms that are signed by parents. Consult your church attorney and senior pastor to go over any legal and liability issues. Research your current policies and procedures and revise as needed to control risks.

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