Extra Special Blessings

By Jessi Emmert –

Wood-Family-Special-Needs-01

The Wood Family. (Photo courtesy of the Wood family)

For five years, Kevin and Becky Seiler were unable to attend church together. They would go to their Catholic parish every week, but one of them would stay outside of the service with their son Max, who has autism, a condition characterized by difficulties with social interaction.

“Most couples you know, they can put their kids in Sunday school and go to worship,” Kevin explained,“For us, that wasn’t really an option.”

When Max was in kindergarten, a special needs teacher at his school suggested he play basketball on the special needs team at The Wood- lands United Methodist Church – a 10,000 member congregation north of Houston.“It was late in the season, but they accommodated him anyway and brought him in,” Kevin said.

Special-Needs-01

Photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

Kevin said during this process they were invited to come on Sunday, where Max could be involved in a special needs Sunday school. At first they were hesitant: Kevin was raised Catholic, and when he and Becky married she also became Catholic.“At that time it was more significant for us to go to Mass, but we figured we could at least both attend something together and it would be better for Max.”

Kevin said it became evident that Max was benefitting hugely from the age-appropriate Bible lessons he was learning through the special needs Sunday school class. Before attending The Woodlands United Methodist Church, the family had never been part of a church with a special needs ministry.

Special-Needs-02

Photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

“What we really wanted was something the whole family could do together,” Kevin said. “Rob Renfroe would carry on many of the Harvest services, that was really significant for us.” Renfroe’s explanation of the Profession of Faith was what made the connection for him.“At that point I understood that it was the same ministry and this was the place that ministry was being delivered to us and for us,” he said. “After that we felt ready to become members.” [Renfroe is the pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, as well as president and publisher of Good News.]

Becky emphasized the sense of belonging she feels at the church.“It’s different here,” she said,“It’s such an eye opener to feel like we belong here and there really is something for every part of our family.”

This sense of belonging was evident in Max’s face.“Today was my first Sunday being a fourth grader in the Sunday school class at church,” he grinned, “I get to do a little of everything now.”

Building the ministry

Special-Needs-03

Photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

In 2004, six families approached the leadership at The Woodlands church about starting a program for children with special needs.“They kind of circled together and said ‘We need this so we can attend worship together,’” Chris Robbins, the director of the special needs ministry, said.

The program began with preschool through sixth grade on Sunday mornings and there were only those six participants. Today, more than 200 families like the Seilers are involved in the program.

Amy Wood and her husband, Jim, are long-time members of the congregation and saw the program begin around the same time their now 10-year-old son James was diagnosed with autism.“There was a mother who had twin girls with autism, she was part of one of the first families to go to the leadership at the church and ask for programming,” Wood said,“And they were very receptive.Then it became a collaboration of realizing that this could be something a lot larger.”

Robbins was working as a special education teacher when the program began. She participated in the program as a volunteer until Debbie Glass, the first director of the program, asked Robbins if she would take the position when she moved away three years ago.

In addition to Robbins, the program has two coordinators, 20 interns and countless volunteers. A special needs prom hosted by the ministry earlier this year was run by more than 150 staff members and volunteers.

The program provides trained volunteers to shadow children with special needs during weekend services. Most of the children are able to participate in their age-appropriate Sunday school class with their shadow, Robbins explained. There is also a room where the children can go with their shadows if they need some quiet time.“The majority of the kids now can handle being in a mainstream Sunday school class with their shadow,” Robbins said,“And they do participate. It’s wonderful.”

There is also programming for older students and adults with special needs. The high school program is called “Remix” and the adult program is called “Revive.” Remix students participate in worship with the rest of the youth group, and then have their own classroom and meet together as a group.

Brown-Family-Special-Needs

The Brown Family. (Photo courtesy of the Brown Family)

Bill and Sheri Brown’s adult daughter Stacy is involved with the Revive program. Stacy was born with a genetic condition that her parents initially believe was Williams syndrome. They eventually found out she actually had Coffin-Lowry syndrome, a very rare condition. Those who have Coffin-Lowry have intellectual disabilities and have delayed development.

“She has been able to be an aid with some of the younger Sunday school classes too,” Sheri said.“She has been able to go to the prom with the ministry.”

Bill said Stacy has built wonderful relationships with people involved in the special needs program, who often will take her to movies and other outings. He said she loves going to parties with her other friends in the ministry.“We’re really pleased with all the opportunities she has had because of the ministry,” he said.

Special-Needs-04

Photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

Robbins said it has been awesome to see the teenagers and adults with special needs find a bond in each other. “They really feel they belong with each other and there is a sense of community.”

A home for the whole family

Wood explained how the special needs ministry has made a huge difference in her family’s life since James’ diagnoses. “My husband and I have a strong medical background,” she said, “So we suspected early on that something was off. We could see that he didn’t have a lot of joint attention skills.”

Wood said that since James was diagnosed early, they were able to begin therapy with him at a young age. In addition to understanding James physical needs, she had to deal with her own grief. “On the inside, it was just learning to pick up the pieces of your heart,” she said.“Some of the people at the church who had special needs kids told me, ‘Don’t let yourself drown in your grief and disappointment.’”

Wood-Family-Special-Needs-02

Photo courtesy of the Wood Family.

Wood said at that point she decided to reach out to God and developed a strong spiritual relationship with him, as well as other members of the church family. “I decided to follow people who had allowed themselves to let go of their dreams for their child and not drown in the sea of what would have been,” she said, “Being in this environment allowed me to accept his disability and embrace what God had in store for us through him.”

Robbins discussed the challenges parents of children with special needs may face, including finding funds for therapy and learning the best resources for their child.“It’s a rather difficult journey,” Robbins said, “Especially the moment when they find out. That can be devastating.”

Wood has a doctorate in pharmacy and her background was in drug research specializing in cancer care. After James was diagnosed, she never returned to that career, but has used her medical background toward helping other parents of children with autism. She volunteers as the president of Families of Effective Autism Treatment in Houston and lectures at universities about autism treatment.

Wood explained that James has fairly severe autism and cannot speak at all, but he can read and write. He also communicates using an app on an iTouch that allows him to respond to questions. “If we go to a restaurant, we can ask James what he wants to eat and he can use iTouch to tell us,” she said, “Technology developed in the last five years has been a huge advance for people with disabilities.”

Wood said James loves participating in the special needs ministry.“It’s been cool for him to go swimming with other kids with special needs and to go ice skating,” she said,“He loves it.”

Wood emphasized that the special needs ministry has been beneficial for their entire family, especially for James’ sister Caroline. “The siblings of those with special needs, they’re really kind of the unsung heroes in all of this,” she said, “It’s hard to be a sibling of a special needs kid. Their parents spend a huge amount of time with the special needs child.The ministry provides a chance for the siblings to get together and talk about it so they don’t feel isolated.”

Wood said she has been part of a Bible study with other special needs mothers. She said it has been key for her to have those companions in Christ and to be able to discuss the challenges.The family also is able to participate in special worship services once a quarter that are held just for families with special needs kids.

“Our kids so many times don’t fit in a worship service,” she said.“This one is for us. It fits.”

The Seilers agreed that their whole family has found a home at the church.“It always seems like when Max comes here, it’s just for him, that it’s individual,” Becky said.

Kevin added that their 5-year-old daughter Lily also loves going to church.“Our kids want to come to church on Sunday,” he said,“They’re always excited, and that’s been really great.”

A network of support

Seiler-Family-Special-Needs

The Seiler Family. (Photo courtesy of the Seiler family)

The first Saturday of every month, Easter Seals Houston comes to the church campus and provides respite for families so that parents can have several hours of private time.

Kevin said the Family Day Out has been a huge blessing for them because the special needs staff is always willing to accommodate each child’s individual needs. “For us, you know, you can’t just hire a baby sitter,” he said, “It doesn’t work like that. We don’t have family around here. So for us, that’s one of the only times we have a chance to go out.”

There is also a program by a group called Autumn’s Dawn directed at high school graduates with autism. It teaches them social skills so they are more equipped to get a job.

Robbins said that for those with autism, the social skill classes can be a major resource. “You can have a man with autism who is just brilliant, who can divide and multiply and quote Scripture, but then if he screams and runs out the door, his participation in society is hindered” she said. “These classes are about helping them fit into society.”

The Woodlands United Methodist Church ministry also encourages other churches to build special needs programs. “The first thing you need to do is pray,” Robbins said, “and then maybe find out what it’s like to have a ministry like this with an existing one. Pastoral support is necessary for it to work. That’s key.”

Special-Needs-05

Photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

The church families with special needs children appreciate the blessing of the ministry, and agreed that it’s something all churches should strive for, regardless of how big the church is. “If a church doesn’t have a special needs program, they just really aren’t ministering to those members who have children with special needs,” Kevin said, “There are so many kids who have so much spiritual potential.”

Sheri Brown added that after attending churches with no special needs program, The Woodlands United Methodist Church has been a huge blessing. “I can’t imagine another church now,” she said.“What would it make it difficult would be finding ways for us to get involved if there wasn’t something for Stacy to do. All our energy would end up going to finding a way to include her and then we wouldn’t be able to participate in other activities.”

Kevin spoke about how Jesus often made a point and effort to reach out to those who were crippled and disabled. “That was obviously a key part of Jesus’ ministry, but yet there are so many churches who skip over it,” he said, “It’s just ironic.”

Robbins said it’s important to understand that there may be church members uncomfortable with a special needs ministry, but that God will make provisions for his will. “We don’t want our families to feel like they can’t bring their child to church.They need to know that we’re going to embrace them whether their child has Down’s syndrome or autism, no matter what.”

She encouraged church members to pray about what special needs ministry should look like at their church, and to always seek God’s direction in taking the steps to form or enhance a special needs program.

“Everyone has some kind of disability in some sense or another. We’re human; we need to reach out to everyone.”

Jessi Emmert is the editorial assistant at Good News. 

Comments

  1. Brenda Stowe says

    What a delight it has been for me to read this informative article about WUMC Special Needs Program. My daughter is the “Robbins” who was quoted and I have been able to gain insight into what she does through this article. Chris is a delight for me and the fact that her life’s work has been to help those with special needs is icing on my pride cake. I wish my being her Mom had something to do with who and what she is, but that is all God’s work. I am so happy that she found WUMC.

  2. Great article! Thank you for running this piece. These types of ministries are so important for so may families. God bless you.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Extra Special Blessings […]

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.