Our guest blogger to day is Lynn Lilja. She has served as an Awana leader in every age group except Cubbies. She’s a freelance writer and Stonecroft Ministries regional speaker-trainer who resides in Antioch, Illinois with her husband, Steve. (http://agoldilockslife.blogspot.com)
I’m Ray’s mom. Most people who know Ray don’t know my name – they identify me by my son. He stands out in a crowd. Ray’s developmental and intellectual disabilities don’t keep him from wanting to be part of the action. He’s outgoing, and he gravitates toward people who will talk with him about sports and movies, two of his favorite subjects.
Ray was welcomed at Awana and other kids’ ministry. He earned his Timothy trophy at Awana, thanks to all the support he received. The leaders made sure he was included, and he loved being there. Church ministries are vital in reaching kids like Ray with the good news of the gospel of Christ. Jesus noticed those who were different, and He responded with compassion.
Here are ten suggestions on how to make a child with special needs welcome in your ministry.
- INVITE. A personal invitation will give these families courage to bring their child. Pray for opportunities to extend invitations to special needs kids you know.
- INCLUDE. Boys and girls with disabilities want to feel part of the group. Let them join in as they are able. Buddy them up with an older or outgoing child. Be sure the other kids and leaders are introduced and everyone knows names. In youth group, Ray was invited to pray aloud, and he’s proud to have won a Mountain Dew® chugging contest.
- COMMUNICATE. Talk with the family and child about what works best. Be informed of health needs. If problems arise, don’t wait to address them – talk with the child and family. Strike a balance between openness and not overwhelming the family about details. They may welcome the chance for an hour of respite.
- SUPPORT. Children with special needs thrive on routine, but it may take them time to catch on. It’s important to keep directions simple. In their book, Steps to Independence, Bruce Baker and Alan Brightman suggest, “No task should take more than one or two sentences to describe. Your instructions should be clear and concise…use words the child can understand” If special supports are needed, find help. Strike the right balance in meeting the group’s needs. Recruit a one-on-one helper such as a high school or college student. The child may do best in a smaller group.
- TRAIN. Volunteers may need training. Check resources such as Children’s Ministry Magazine and Joni and Friends’ website, www.joniandfriends.org. (Awana also has a great book Awana for Me, available in the catalog or on the online store.) Special education teachers in local schools may have suggestions.
- ENCOURAGE. Give the child praise for accomplishments. If she brought her book or an offering, notice it. When he listens well, be sure to praise him. Awana offers built-in incentives kids like.
- FOLLOW UP. Check in with leaders, the child, and parents to be sure needs are being met on both sides. Call the family if the child hasn’t attended for a few weeks.
- BE OBSERVANT. It may be difficult for special kids to make friends. If this child connects with one of the other kids, encourage friendship. Introduce the parents to each other. Watch what the Lord works out.
- PRAY. Pray for wisdom and insight in ministering to this child. Pray for specific needs as you get to know the child and family.
- REJOICE! Spending time with boys and girls with disabilities is rewarding as you observe them having fun, making friends, and growing in faith.
Jesus reached out to those with special needs. You might be like Jesus to one special child.
*Bruce L. Baker, Alan J. Brightman, Steps to Independence (Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co. 2004), 33