Imagine a high school student upset because they couldn’t get to church.
Imagine an adult with intellectual disabilities involved in a group where they felt comfortable participating in service projects and Bible studies on their level.
Imagine 5-year-olds befriending and including a classmate with multiple disabilities as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do.
Imagine being a parent of a child with special needs and having the confidence of knowing trained volunteers were caring for your child while you grab a couple hours of respite to take care of shopping, running errands, or simply relaxing – with no worries.
Imagine that same family being able to worship together for the first time because their special needs child can now be included in programming that meets their needs during the service.
All of these have become reality because of Special Connections, a new ministry at Owensboro Christian Church serving those with special needs.
Special Connections began as a result of a prayer request, says Russ Smith, Next Gen Team Leader at Owensboro Christian. “We had a mom with a special needs daughter who asked our church to pray about what it might look like to have a special needs ministry.” Smith connected with that mother and the two of them put together a committee comprised of professionals in the field and parents who are raising children with special needs.
Together, the committee started realizing that families in the community often have a hard time finding a place to worship that allows for their child to be a part of programming at the same time.
“To be able to help families in this way is not just ministering to the child, but also to the entire family. That’s why I think Special Connections is so important,” says Kim Johnson, who was the first person Smith invited on the committee because of her background in special needs as Director of Special Education for Owensboro Public Schools. “Sometimes it’s not just a challenge for parents and the child, it’s also a challenge for siblings. The same could be said for adults with intellectual disabilities, sometimes they need their own place to go and participate while their families worship. And some do both, it just depends on their individual needs,” Johnson continued.
To start the new ministry, the committee researched on the Internet and looked to other churches. “We spoke with several churches who have ministries for those with special needs, then built our program from bits and pieces of what we’d gathered from all those other places,” Johnson explained.
With a plan in place, Special Connections launched the Buddy Program within the context of Owensboro Christian’s Kids Ministry in April of 2015. Johnson explained, “With our Buddy Program, kids with special needs are partnered with a buddy to help them with activities in Next Gen small groups. We started primarily with preschool and younger children, but we have the ability to expand the program to include older children as we grow our volunteer base.”
The Buddy Program takes place every Sunday during the 9:15 and 10:45 services.
Buddies can be an adult or high school student. After signing up online and completing a training, buddies are then paired with a special needs partner, sitting side by side with them in their small group classroom.
“For example, we have one little guy that just needs help staying on task, so his buddy helps him with that. The young lady I buddy with gets over-stimulated, so we’ll take breaks or walk down the hallway and back,” Johnson said.
Another benefit of the Buddy Program is it helps the comfort level of other kids in the Kids Ministry small group classrooms. “There’s one boy in preschool who has several disabilities and has trouble communicating, so he has a buddy sit with him. Since his buddy has been helping him, the other preschool kids are interacting with him better now because they see how his buddy has learned to communicate with him,” Smith said. “There have been a couple other kids who have now come along side him because of the buddy’s example.”
In January of 2016, Special Connections added the Respite Program, which will continue the second Saturday of every other month from 9 a.m. – noon.
The Respite Program is designed to give parents of a child with special needs a break from their ongoing care-giving responsibilities. Each respite includes a 3-hour program with a variety of physical activities, crafts, stories and sensory activities. “We really try to make it fun and engaging so they’ll want to come back,” Johnson said. At the first respite, one of the favorite activities was the parachute game in the gym.
The Respite Program is open to participants 21 and younger – and siblings if they’d like to join them. Everyone in the community is welcome, it’s not just for church members. Anyone in the community can also volunteer to serve in that ministry. “We’re always in need of more volunteers,” Smith added.
Special Connections has even bigger plans for the future: an adult prom is being planned for next February, which gives them a full year to plan and prepare. “We’ve already been in conversations with three churches who have done adult proms before. Most recommend at least a one-on-one ratio, so we’re going to need lots more volunteers to make it run smoothly,” Smith said.
Registration for participants and volunteers for the Buddy Program or Respite Program is ongoing at
owensboro.cc/special-connections. Kim holds regular volunteer training for buddies as they register.