From the time a family receives the diagnosis that they will have a child with special needs, their life will never be the same. A new normal awaits them on this unanticipated journey.
One parent describes it as planning a trip to Italy. All of the preparation and excitement of experiencing the glimmer and glamour of Italy is abruptly halted when suddenly they get off the plane anticipating Gondolas and Rembrandts, but now find themselves in… Holland. Holland is not a bad place, its just not where they had planned to go, or where many of their friends have landed. Disappointed, overwhelmed and uncertain of the path they are now on, we as Kids Leaders have the opportunity to embrace, encourage and reassure them of our support. From the start, their change in itinerary must not be greeted with “I am so sorry” but instead “we welcome and celebrate your child into our family.”
When we think about providing ministry to kids with special needs and their families, often we believe that if we just get a “program” in place, then that will take care of their needs. While providing a great “program” to meet the spiritual needs of special kiddos is important, there are other things that you can easily implement that will let a family know that you care and provide some practical support on their journey with their special child.
Here are 3 practical things that you should consider as you attempt to support a special needs family.
1. Be Proactive to Anticipate the Needs of the Special Needs Family as they Worship with you!
Coordinating a visit to church can be challenging enough with “typical” kids, but adding the additional complexities that special needs can bring might make a parent think twice about even coming at all. From the time that the special needs family rolls into your church parking lot, how can you can begin to anticipate their needs and make it a little easier for them? Here’s a few ideas:
- Provide close parking spots.
While a handicap sticker may provide those with physical disabilities a “good” spot, the single parent mom that has an active child with autism and sibling could use the favoritism. A simple parking sign labeled “Special Needs Parking” is a welcoming sight to a weary parent can signify that they are welcome and not a burden.
- Provide Assistance When They Arrive
An extra set of hands to help the weary traveler deliver their loved one into your care can keep a parent from having a melt down!
- Have a Buddy volunteer available to partner with the child with special needs. This individual will be able to focus on child and maximize their abilities as well as assist with ministry lessons and activities. Coordinate service times with the parent.
- Help with the child’s overall transition.
Invite the family to visit the church when it is empty, so that the child can experience it on their own terms. You may also consider taking pics so that they can review it with their child at home.
- If a child continues having difficulty adapting to the environment, invite a Behavior Modification Specialist to evaluate the situation and offer solutions.
- Strive to Provide an Inclusive Environment.
Consider how to adapt special activities so that ALL kids may enjoy them together. Don’t make families beg you to include their child in any children’s ministry program, event or outreach.
- Look beyond the disability and affirm to the family the purpose God has woven into their unique child’s life. Remind them of the value their child brings to the Body of Christ. Find ways to allow their special child to use their unique gifts and serve as any other child would.
- Take the time to personally become familiar with the child’s disability, the needs and their equipment or communication devices. This will help you to be more comfortable and understand the capabilities of the child. Doing a home or school visit can be very beneficial to even understand the needs of the family.
As you learn about the specific needs of the child and their family, you can better anticipate and address their needs as they worship with you. Remember its ok to ask parents to help you develop a plan. The fact that you care and are committed to finding a way to welcome their child into your ministry will send an important message and provide a great deal of support.
2. Help the Family in Practical Ways!
A disability does not only impact the child, but it affects the entire family. A child that has considerable health or behavioral challenges that requires a lot of attention from the parent, limits the caregiver’s ability to take care of other family needs. Sometimes the needs of the siblings become secondary and are unintentionally left unmet. The good news is that you can practically help! Consider:
- Offering to transport siblings to and from church events. Many times, this may be the only way a sibling can participate.
- Provide some additional one on one attention with a sibling. Take interest and invest into their life.
- Bring a family a meal randomly or when there is an obvious need.
- Help with daily chores or lawn work
- Offer to pick up groceries
- If a child is in the hospital, help the family with daily concerns, childcare, etc.
- Find ways to take care of the caregiver. Often times caregivers live in “burnout” mode. That can include physically, emotionally and spiritually.Nurture their spirit with scripture and hold them up in prayer.
- Start a Parent’s Day Out/Respite Care Program. This not only gives parents a break, but gives people a chance to get to know these special kids and siblings.
- Regularly check on the family to see if there is anything they need. Because parents of kids with disabilities have had to learn to be survivors and take care of things as they come, many times they don’t ask for help. Ask them how you can help.
‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘ Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:44-46
3. Help Special Families Build Relationships in the Body and Find a Place to Belong!
Being a kid with special needs can be a lonely place. So many times, invitations to birthday parties are scarce as are opportunities to be included in typical kid gatherings. Families often feel lonely and isolated as well as they experience this void. Because of the demands that life brings, these families also often lack relationships, as they are consumed in their daily duties.
Helping these families to connect and stay connected with the Body of Crist is a critical component to their survival.
What can you do to help these families find their way out of isolation and intentionally draw them into community?
- Be a consistent friend
- Remember their special days
- Celebrate their milestones – no matter how big or small
- Be intentional to include special needs families in family fun activities and gatherings
- Share a pizza on a Friday night
- Invite a child with special needs to your birthday party
- Provide an environment of love and acceptance.
- Invite them to a care group. Don’t forget to make provisions for their kids.
- Take interest in their special child and the entire family
- Stand in the gap in prayer
As you contemplate how to better support kids with special needs and their families, remember that they need to see Jesus in the flesh.Love them unconditionally. Serve Them Unselfishly. Be inconvenienced to go the extra mile. Assure them that you will walk the journey with them and that you are committed for the long haul. Then start somewhere and “Just Do It!”
Your commitment to support special needs families through the joys and trials they face can make an eternal difference!
Whether its Italy or Holland, lets commit to make sure that special needs families make a safe landing into their eternal destination!