Preparing Your Ministry to Receive Individuals with Disabilities

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Kids at churchBefore you know it, school will be starting and your children’s and youth ministries will be starting again. How can you prepare your church to welcome the magnificent variety of God’s children into your community this ministry year? Director of Church Services Barbara J. Newman shares four tips for preparing your ministry to receive individuals at all levels of ability this year.

1. Offer a preview on your website.

“Something I’ve been recommending to many churches lately is to utilize your church website to give a preview of what visitors can expect at your church,” said Barbara J. Newman. “Similar to checking out hotel photos and your seat on an airplane prior to a trip, some individuals will benefit from photos or a video of what they can expect when they come to your church, church school class, or youth group.”

What does worship look like at your church? What kind of music can one expect? Who are the key people a child or teenager might meet? What does the building look like? Consider including photos, video, or music snippets on your website for potential members to use in getting to know your church. We share other items to consider on your website in this post.

2. Work with parents to create an information story.

Church Welcome StoryUsing elements from your website above and more personalized photos, create a story about what MAY happen when this individual comes to your church or a specific ministry. (For a pre-written story with customizable pages, consider the Church Welcome Story by Barbara J. Newman.) You can show details such as where they might pick up snack during children’s church, where they may stand when they sing in the choir, some of the friends they may meet on Wednesday night, and other details of their time at the church program.

“It is important to include words such as ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘probably’ in your preview so that if the order or details change, your story is still accurate,” shared Newman, “Also, try to stay away from giving specific times, and instead provide a sequence of events. Some individuals get upset if you are off by a minute or two if the specific time is listed.”

3. Ask the right questions.

The information you collect about an individual during the intake process can help you and appropriate leaders understand their gifts and needs, and use this information to create an environment where they are included and supported.

As you’re getting to know individuals and families at the beginning of the year, consider asking them to complete a survey to help you get to know God’s handiwork in their son or daughter. (Don’t worry, we have already created the survey for you — you can download it for free here)! This survey asks questions such as:

  • What activities does your family member enjoy doing the most?
  • Tell me a bit about your story. What has your journey been like over the last few years.
  • What are your goals and dreams for your family member as it relates to the church environment?
  • What is your biggest concern for that type of environment?

We invite you to use the information collected on this survey to create a confidential “welcome page” to share with appropriate leaders so that they can get to know God’s knitting pattern in this individual and create a place for him or her to grow in Christ.

4. Be equipped with the right tools.

“The furniture, seating options, toys, writing instruments, and other environmental factors can tell you a lot about how a school or church thinks about children,” said Newman. “I encourage children’s ministries to have a variety of seating options and attention tools (think wiggle cushions, carpet squares, thera-band and exercise balls), writing tools (such as fidget pencils and various pencil grips), and reading tools (like highlighter tape and EZC Readers) to accommodate for a variety of learning and attention supports that children need.”

Inclusion Tool KitWhen parents are determining if a church or program is the right fit for their son or daughter, the ministry setting helps them know if a church is open to a variety of individuals. “At CLC Network, we wanted to make it easy for churches and schools to try out different attention, writing, and reading tools, so we created the Inclusion Tool Kit. The kit contains tools with instructions and websites to create or order more. I always recommend that anyone that works with kids give these tools a try!” said Newman.

 

Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is the director of church services and a teacher consultant at CLC Network.

photo credit: 20120801-519 via photopin (license)

Celebrating Pierce’s Gifts: A Blessed Partnership

Reuben and Pierce

Mr. Van Til and Pierce work together in the storage room at West Side Christian School.

You need to walk quickly to keep up with Pierce. He’s one of West Side Christian School’s (Grand Rapids, MI) hardest workers, and one of the fastest. When he and Reuben Van Til, West Side Christian’s custodian, get together, it’s all business… and Pierce clearly loves it.

Depending on the season, Pierce and Mr. Van Til will rake leaves, shovel snow, or work in the garden. “Once it snows, he has his own snow shovel,” Mr. Van Til shares. “Typically at recess he’ll just take that out and clear the sidewalk, without ever being asked.”

Pierce came to West Side Christian in fourth grade, after attending a public school. Right away, he began staying after assemblies to help clear the chairs. His teachers also noticed his interest in working with Mr. Van Til. Kim Mast, paraprofessional, remembers,

“Pierce would be doing reading, writing, and math. Every time Mr. Van Til rode the tractor or walked by, he was very focused on that. He wanted to see what Mr. Van Til was doing, so we would start watching. That’s how we discovered Pierce’s gifts were in manual work and his interest was in whatever Mr. Van Til was doing.”

The next year, Pierce’s teachers arranged for him to officially work with Mr. Van Til. “It makes school much more enjoyable for Pierce,” Mrs. Mast explains. “Just like gym or art class makes school enjoyable for some kids, this kind of work makes school fun for Pierce… It makes for interesting sentences in writing. If Mr. Van Til is the topic, it really helps. It’s so much more interesting to Pierce than other things.”

“If it’s a snow day, Pierce has tears in his eyes,” shares his mother, Koley Hockeborn. “He wants to go and be part of the school. He’s learning from the other kids, too.”

Pierce has a cognitive impairment, and was placed in a segregated classroom for his early schooling. A neighbor encouraged his mother to consider West Side Christian for Pierce, noticing that when he was around other kids his ticks and language would improve. After meeting with West Side Christian’s leadership and teachers, “They said they could teach him. It was scary and a big step, but he has improved in leaps and bounds.” Pierce is now reading, he is learning penmanship, and he is doing multiplication.

“The academic piece is hard for Pierce, but his gifts are his strength and hard work,” explains Maria Bultsma, Educational Support Services Coordinator.

“This arrangement is really using Pierce’s gifts as best we can. He’s still spending time in class, but he’s using his gifts to do things like distributing the milk, picking up chairs after chapel, and paper recycling. The scheduled days with Mr. Van Til are motivation for him.”

Pierce and Reuben working together

Mr. Van Til shows Pierce how to use the leaf blower.

Pierce’s favorite job is riding the tractor. “Last week when we were doing leaves, we’d fill my trailer full of leaves and he rides in the trailer. You don’t see him a whole lot happier than that, and it was a big help to have him out there with me,” says Mr. Van Til. “He likes it when we go in the storage room. He takes my keys and opens the door and turns on the lights. He’s a very hard worker, he works just as hard as I do.”

Pierce’s mother has noticed the difference in Pierce. “Pierce’s teachers at West Side Christian know him, they are so in tune with him. He and Mr. Van Til took to each other right away, and now he’s learning life skills. They created this program for him,” Mrs. Hockeborn shares. Mrs. Bultsma credits CLC Network teacher consultants for providing additional brainstorming and encouragement. “They have provided insight to possible options [for Pierce],” she reflects. “Most of all, [CLC Network consultants] have listened to our concerns and have been very encouraging to our staff.”

“We are working on goals for his future, what he might do after books and after school,” adds Mrs. Bultsma.

“There is a lot of learning going on, a lot of happy things, and a different kind of learning. Pierce has a lot of gifts given to him from God and we’re just trying to figure out how to use those gifts.”

Before working at West Side Christian, Mr. Van Til built custom cabinetry. He’s had the chance to show Pierce his shop and hopes to teach him about a few tools and their basic functions. “It’s a lot nicer than my garage,” says Pierce. “I got to try the air hose,” he remembers with a smile.

Watching Pierce and Mr. Van Til together, their connection shines in both of them. As Mr. Van Til reflects, “It’s advantageous for me and for Pierce to be doing this. I feel a little more important when we work together. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world but I’ve always felt called to be here and share some of my knowledge with the kids.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Inclusive newsletter – a biannual newsletter published by the CLC Network advancement office. Sign up on the CLC Network website.

Elizabeth Lucas DombrowskiElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.

5 Tips for Summer Church Inclusion

First Baptist NashvilleIn the summertime, many churches put their Church School programs and other school-year activities on hold, which creates a new routine for everyone involved.  While some of us like change, a new routine can be difficult for some individuals, particularly individuals with disabilities. Here are some tips for your church to make sure everyone has a smooth transition into the new routine during the summer months.

  1. Communication with Key People

    As you are trying to develop a plan for the summer months, make sure you communicate with the individual, his or her family members, and any care providers. Creating a survey is one way these needs can be communicated to one another (download a free sample survey here). Or, something more informal, such as sitting down and grabbing coffee, works well too. Just be sure to ask rather than assume, what exactly is needed during the summer months.

  2. Summer Church Inclusion Action Plan

    Once you have spoken with the correct people, come up with a plan together about the best way to include the person who has a disability during these summer months. The plan should include ways an individual can use his or her gifts to be involved in areas such as worship, fellowship, and service. This plan should include steps and recommendations for the individual as well as the congregation.

    For example, an individual might worship with praise ribbons during Church School. During the summer months (or even during the rest of the year!), you may want to make praise ribbons accessible during your congregation’s worship time. Make sure that everyone is aware of this change, and that all are welcome to participate. If you are looking for an action plan guide, CLC Network has a “Church Inclusion Action Plan” in the G.L.U.E. Training Manual (available for purchase here).

  3. Schedule/Calendar

    Create a schedule or calendar for the person who has a disability so that he or she is able to anticipate the new summer routine. For example, create a schedule of the order of worship for your service. Or, a calendar of special events your church has over the summer. Be sure to communicate this schedule in a way that is best for the individual, such as using pictures in addition to words.

  4. Preview the Setting

    Allow the person with a disability to come to church before the service and allow him or her to walk through the new routine. For example, rather than heading to Sunday School right before the sermon starts, have him or her practice walking back to a seat in the sanctuary.

  5. Respite Care

    While respite care is hopefully happening throughout the year, this care can be especially important in the summertime as school is out and there is ample amount of free time during the day. Recruit volunteers to spend time with the person who has disabilities while his or her family runs errands, goes out to eat, or simply takes a nap.

As you continue to include those with disabilities into your congregation and navigate the new routine that summertime brings, we hope you find some of these tips helpful and beneficial! You can find additional inclusion tips for Vacation Bible School in this blog post.

 

Jacki Sikkema photoJacki Sikkema has a background in Special Education and is a former church consultant for CLC Network. She will work at Grand Rapids Christian Middle School as a 5th grade teacher in the fall.

 

photo credit: 2008-VBS-Monday-272 via photopin (license)

 

 

 

The Journey of Inclusion at Calvary Church

Inclusion has been 25 years in the making at Calvary Church, and as Judi Warner, director of special needs ministry, says, “Like every church, we’re still on a journey”.

Judi Warner

A former church consultant at CLC Network, Judi began at Calvary Church four years ago with a vision to bring inclusion to the 4,000-member Grand Rapids congregation.  The church had a well-established special needs ministry for kids and adults that grew out of Calvary’s belief that each individual has a place in the community of believers. Building on this foundational value, Judi and her three-person team have helped the children’s, youth, and adult ministries receive the gifts of persons with disabilities in an inclusive and interdependent environment by focusing on each person’s gifts:

“[From what I learned during my time at CLC Network], first and foremost, you look at the individual first and you ask, ‘What are their gifts? What are their weaknesses? What are some of their challenges?’ You focus on the gifts and what their desires are to serve, be served, and serve alongside. It all begins with getting to know that individual first,” shared Judi.

Paving the Way with Children’s Ministry

In such a large church environment, the natural place to begin inclusion was with the children’s ministry.

“It began with me sharing the vision that God put on my heart to see all of his kids included together. And I began asking, ‘How could special needs ministry become more ‘one’ with the children’s ministry (with special needs staff being the support piece)?’ In a beautiful way, God made that gradually happen as parents had their kids included at school and expected the same at church.”

Though they met with initial hesitancy, Judi and her staff consulted often with the children’s ministry staff, parents, and kids to make sure everyone felt supported and equipped.

Through this gradual process, the children’s ministry has been transformed. This fall, Judi’s dream for a unified children’s and special needs ministry will come true with combined staff personnel and training for staff and volunteers. The efforts to unify the ministries are a reflection of the impact inclusion has had on kids. Judi notes,

“It’s an amazing thing when you talk to kids in a classroom and you try to bring awareness about a child with a disability. The kids ‘get it’. It’s like they’re not even different.”

Focusing on Youth Groups

Calvary ChurchBut inclusion doesn’t stop with the children’s ministry at Calvary Church. The middle and high school youth groups focus on identifying the gifts and needs of students with disabilities and placing support structures around those students. “One of the more significant challenges is sensory overload. The youth group spends lots of time in large groups and the room itself can be over stimulating. The special needs ministry staff works with the youth group staff to accommodate or adapt different portions of the ministry.”

Because teens are used to inclusion at their West Michigan Christian and public schools, it was natural to have teens with disabilities in the middle and high school youth groups.

“The high school staff has done a great job of identifying [typical] students who can offer support to a student when needed. And if the staff needs us, then our team jumps in to offer assistance. It has been fun to watch the youth group staff and students take ownership of it. And if inclusion is difficult for an individual, then we invite them to worship and participate in Go-Getters, our adult program.”

Creating Interdependence among Adults

Go-Getters, which began 25 years ago as a self-contained program for kids with disabilities, evolved to serve adults as its attendees grew. Today the program offers worship services, activities, classes, and faith mentoring for more than 130 adults with disabilities and their families.

“God paved the way for each of these individuals to be part of a community within themselves. Our challenge now is to allow the entire Calvary Church community to learn and benefit from one another,” shared Judi.

Calvary Church Go-GettersThe adults are taking steps toward serving together in various ministries. If a member of Go-Getters wants to join a class or church activity, Judi meets with the individual to learn about their gifts and challenges and then matches them up with the right small group or activity. Judi and her team will offer assistance as needed to the leader and participants so that everyone feels equipped and informed. Through small groups, church baptisms, congregation-wide meals, and worship services that are open to everyone, full inclusion is gradually happening among the adults at the church.

“It’s a journey,” Judi acknowledges, with the hope that as kids and teens grow, they will become adults who view inclusion as normalcy. “And that’s what gives me so much hope for God’s vision of it all. These kids will be the adults of tomorrow who will welcome and embrace people with disabilities because ‘why wouldn’t you? These individuals have been part of my life growing up and they’re part of God’s creation just like I am…there’s no setting them apart.’ I look forward to the day when the majority of adults with and without disabilities serve alongside one another in the church.”

Providing Options for Families

Calvary Church The special needs ministry staff recognizes that an inclusive environment does not work for everyone all of the time. While Calvary Church responds graciously to distractions during the worship service, Judi knows that a large worship environment is not always the right fit. She acknowledges the importance of providing people with options and helping each one find their place in the Calvary community.

“We want to provide an opportunity for people to worship the Lord, and for their kids to be well cared for and to share the love of Christ. If that means a separate classroom for a time, then we provide them with options,” said Judi.

Though Calvary Church is still on a journey, their story serves as a testament to God’s faithfulness and desire for each of His children–regardless of their level of ability or disability–to worship and serve together.

Judi’s Advice: Don’t Say “No”

She encourages congregations of all sizes to make a place for each person in their community, “Get to know that individual and their family. Embrace them, welcome them. Have an opportunity very shortly after you meet them to interview them (and their family) and visit their home. Use that information to put together a profile on that individual. Don’t say, ‘No’, instead say, “We’re glad you’re here. We want to get to know you.”

 

Katie Barkley ImageKatie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Social Inclusion for All at South Christian High School

High school lunchtime can be an intimidating atmosphere, filled with uncertain social norms and expectations, depending on your grade level and social status. However, a step into the lunch hour at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) is bustling with students of diverse grade levels, abilities, and backgrounds eating, laughing, and playing games together as part of the school’s Connections Lunch Partners program.

Connections Lunch Partners

Each group of Connections Lunch Partners meets once every two weeks throughout the semester to eat lunch and play games together.

Lunch Partners, which began fifteen years ago, is just one way that South Christian seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups through their larger Connections program.  By creating opportunities for purposeful interactions, Connections’ mission is to help students see one another through God’s eyes.

South Christian High School started Connections nearly twenty years ago when they began including students with more significant needs in their general education classrooms. They realized students with disabilities were getting the support they needed academically, but the school needed to do more to connect students socially.

“We started with a small group the first few years; I would personally ask students to come alongside one of our students with a disability to offer tutoring or eat with them at lunch, which grew into genuine friendships over time. That first year, we based it on the Circle of Friends model, but tweaked pieces of it to fit high school and it grew from there,” shared Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusion Specialist at South Christian for twenty-one years.

“I appreciated the encouragement from CLC Network to keep going, even when student participation was low. God has truly blessed our efforts. The placement of my classroom is a testament to that – I moved from the back corner of a hallway to the very heart of the school,” remembers Van Keulen.

Currently, more than one-third of the South Christian High 660-person student body participates in Connections in some capacity through peer tutors, special events, Connections Council, themed chapels, or Diversability Week. As Van Keulen shares, “The only qualities we require are a willingness to reach across boundaries, a willingness to serve, an ability to meet weekly, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. If a student has the right attitude, we can coach them on the rest.”

Often, students are eager to participate because they have heard it is a fun way to get involved at school.

“Participating in Connections is a great opportunity to get to know people. It is a free environment where you can be yourself – it’s very welcoming,” shared Cody, a senior.

“I got involved because I thought it was a good way to meet new people and get connected,” commented Sam, a senior Connection Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since ninth grade.

Impacting Students’ Hearts and Lives

Connections Council Bowling Party

Members of the Connections Council meet regularly to plan events, a yearly chapel service, and to hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders.

Vocationally, Connections is preparing students for future careers in special education. Ashtyn, a senior, credits Connections for helping her realize she wanted to specialize in cognitive impairments as part of her future special education degree. Madeline, a senior who wants to become a paraprofessional after she graduates shared, “Peer tutoring helped me become more prepared [for this job] – I’ve learned patience and joy.”

Connections has created competent, compassionate leaders, genuine friends, and better students, not to mention a generation of Christ-followers who daily interact with friends of diverse abilities and backgrounds – something that’s become commonplace at this inclusive Christian school.

“Inclusion has come into every part of our students’ lives – we’ve seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they’ve learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways,” shared Van Keulen.

George Guichelaar, principal at South Christian High for more than twenty years stated,

“What’s absolutely blown us away is how [inclusion] has transformed our school. We initially focused on how it would change students that were receiving services, but we should have focused on how it would impact everyone else.”

Sarah, a senior at South Christian reflects on how she’s grown through her involvement with Connections: “When people think about programs like Connections or inclusive education, they think the helpers are only benefiting the student. But when you start working with students who have Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder or any kind of disability really, you get so much out of it at the same time. It’s not just a one way benefit.”

“Connections is a gift that keeps on giving,” stated Kevin, a senior Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since entering high school, “You don’t realize how much you’re impacted by it until you step back and realize what a great experience it’s been. I’ve learned that everyone is different and has obstacles to overcome. Helping them through that is a great experience.”

Connections Banquet

Every spring, high school students and alumni celebrate friendships at the annual Connections Banquet.

Sarah continues, “When I started doing peer tutoring, Lunch Partners and working on the Connections Banquet, I was a little bit judgmental and snobby. When I started teaching [students with disabilities] life skills and how to live independently, they taught me so much about myself. I was teaching them, and at the same time they were teaching me how to love unconditionally, and not care what your differences are…”

Like many of her peers, Lindsey, a junior, shared that she has learned pure joy from working with persons with disabilities, “It’s given me a different perspective on life. I’ve learned how to help others even when I don’t feel like it.”

“You learn to respect everyone and treat them like you’d treat your friends,” commented Kerri, a senior Council member: a statement that affirms she is learning and practicing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 firsthand.

An Encouragement for Schools

From listening to students and staff alike, it is apparent that Connections has transformed the community at South Christian High School. A transformation they adamantly encourage other Christian schools to pursue:

 “Just do it. Start somewhere! Get permission from your administration, and then begin with a small group of students. We’ve learned that lunch is the best time for high school students to connect with one another. After we began Lunch Partners, Connections grew exponentially.”

Van Keulen continued, “The Council (made up of juniors and seniors) has been critical to the success of Connections. They do the brainstorming and organizing for Connections events, hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders, and plan a yearly chapel. Even within the Council, friendships have developed that would not have happened otherwise.”

“Each spring as our senior leaders graduate, I pray for the right students to be part of the Council the next year. And every year without fail, God always raises up the amazing student leaders that we need!” shared Van Keulen, indicating a deep reliance on faith that has been crucial to the school’s twenty-year journey with inclusive education–a journey that clearly God has blessed.

Katie Barkley Image“Social Inclusion for All” by Katie Barkley was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Christian Home & School, a publication of Christian Schools International.

Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.