Alpharetta First UMC Serves Families of Children With Special Needs

12/4/2009

By ELIZABETH LeBLANC

Before I had children, I thought that I knew everything. I would look at families and think to myself how wrong they were. I would see a misbehaved child in a restaurant and sneak looks at the terrible parents who were allowing that behavior.

I was a special education teacher and I spent too much of my time judging the families I was there to serve. Why didn’t they work with their children more? Why did they have the wrong expectations for their children?

I knew everything and I had a plan. I was going to have one child who would be a very intelligent, athletic boy.

Fast forward more than a decade. I now know what I fool I was. I am a children’s minister and I have three children, all girls. So much for my plan! For eight years I have been learning, day in and day out, that parenting is very challenging. It is fun, it is rewarding, but it is hard. My girls have met many of the expectations I had, exceeded some and not even come close to others. That is what makes life so fun. My whole family is usually at church from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. each Sunday. We work hard, we have fun and we are together.

More than a year ago, a woman stopped me to comment on the fact that my fun crew is always with me. She said that it was awesome to see a family working together. I swelled with pride. I asked her about her own family and she shared some of the details of her life. She has two children, one typical daughter and one daughter with very involved special needs. The parents took turns coming to church. The mom would come at 8:30 a.m. and the Dad would come at 11 a.m. They had not attended church together in 11 years. She said that she has a friend that she often sits with. This friend also has a child with special needs, so they have things in common. Church is the only place they get to relax together because they always have the responsibility to care for their own children. She shared that they occasionally helped each other out with child care but could never do anything together.

That conversation was the birth of our Special Needs Ministry at Alpharetta First United Methodist Church. I have been slowly working to start and nourish this passion of mine. I began by advertising a meeting for families of children with special needs. We met each other in the church library and did nothing more than get to know one another. Each parent introduced themselves and told us about their families. We ended with a brief brainstorming session about what the church could do for them.

Next I advertised for volunteers who would like to help with these wonderful families. I held a meeting where the volunteers identified their strengths and backgrounds for such awesome work. We also identified availability and commitment levels.

Soon after the meeting, we hosted our first Date Night for parents of children with special needs and their siblings. We offered four hours of free childcare in our nursery rooms. We required a reservation and used three volunteers and two paid staff members to work the event. It was a great success. The mom who had sparked the idea for

this ministry came, and she was able to go out to dinner with the friend who sat with her at church.

Both couples were able to socialize and be together for a brief moment of rest.

We have since sponsored two guest speakers to discuss topics of interest to our families. We had a counselor talk about the role of typical siblings in these families. We also hosted a special needs attorney who spoke about educational rights and services available to these families.

Both events were very well attended.

In December, we will host our fifth Date Night. In January, we have a guest speaker coming in to discuss strategies to keep a marriage strong while facing the challenges that come with having a child with special needs. We now provide three volunteers a week to shadow the special needs

students in Sunday school and children’s church.

One of the best parts of this ministry is that it has blessed the volunteers almost as much as it has blessed the families we are trying to serve. Our very best volunteer is a teenager who was becoming disconnected from church. She is a super smart, kind-hearted girl. We needed her and she stepped up to help us. She is on time, and engaged in a Sunday school class and children’s church every week. We have an 86-year-old volunteer who works with one of our children. She shadows her new 11-year-old friend everywhere for one hour a week. I am not sure who is benefitting more!

I have received e-mails and calls from people all around Georgia, and even from Alabama, asking about our little ministry. We have just barely scratched the surface and I can see how great of need there is. I believe honestly and passionately we, as churches, cannot run a

children’s ministry without incorporating a program for children with special needs. We are not here to serve the most convenient; we are here to serve all of God’s children.

It turns out that I was following a plan all along. God has a plan for all of us. Where does your church fit into the plan of these amazing families?

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This article ran in the December 4 edition of the North Georgia Advocate. To subscribe or renew visit www.ngumc.org/advocate.


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