Reflections On The First Week of Camp

Soaring Over Seven Summer Camp

Access Ministry successfully completed its first week of Soaring Over Seven (SOS) summer camp last Friday. The camp is designed specifically for campers with disAbilities and their siblings. This week, campers experienced Bible lessons, carnival activities, computer lab, art activities, and the opportunity to work with therapy dogs. Off-site field trips included pool time, Putt-Putt golf, a visit to a working farm, water park, fully-accessible playground, and Chuck E. Cheese’s. It was a week of learning, growing, and being stretched for all of our young staffers, many of which had never before worked with children with disabilities.

Each week, we ask staffers to share their “ahha” moments for the week. What was the most poignant, biggest surprise, or the most memorable thing learned. Following are some of those reflections:

  • “I saw God’s grace in the face of the camper I was working with.”
  • “In my weakness, God’s strength was shown.”
  • “If I take the time to listen, my camper will express his desires.”
  • “I learned this week to talk to my camper, not talk at her, and she has an opinion.”
  • “Children need to be given choices, and to exercise a vote when possible.”
  • “To see my camper smile”
  • “Watching my camper make friends and socialize with others”
  • “My camper needs what every other child needs.”
  • “I can communicate without words.”
  • “To be loved, valued, accepted for who they are and a place to be safe and welcomed.”

The young SOS staffers are being molded and shaped as servant leaders this summer, as they reach out and care for a group of people that are often treated like second-class citizens or invisible in society. Here, they are celebrated and cherished as God’s perfect creations made in His image.

Ideas & Tips to Create An Inclusive Environment

Setting Up The Classroom

LIGHTING - Many persons with disabilities are sensitive to fluorescent lights. Either they are too harsh, or they can hear a hum. Explore other lighting options, such as natural light, desk lamps, or floor lamps. Allowing a person impacted by lights to wear a baseball cap or sunglasses is another option.

NOISE – Some students have a sensitivity to noise. Consider placing carpet/rugs in certain areas to minimize sound. Create quieter areas, such as “book nooks”. Realize the larger the group or activity, the louder the noise. Allow persons to opt out of “large activities” or those with high level of activities. Encourage those who are able to wear ear phones or headsets to do so in order to buffer sound.

CLASSROOM ORGANIZATION – Many students with disabilities benefit from visual organization of materials/supplies. Creating an orderly environment creates a sense of security, as their world then becomes a bit more predictable. Have separate containers and storage units for toys/supplies/materials that are well labeled with pictures.

FURNITURE CHOICES – Consider offering a variety of seating options, as individuals may have difficulty sitting still or feel uncomfortable in a standard chair. Adding a therapy ball, rocking chair, bean bag chairs, and/or floor mats are a few possible options. Allow for movement in classroom/programming. Arrange furniture to help delineate specific areas or create visual boundaries.

CLASSROOM LAYOUT – Define space and usage by furniture arrangement, signs, and pictures, e.g. computer area, quiet area, story pit. Have areas/activities well labeled.

VISUAL REMINDERS – Post class/program schedules (use words/picture symbols), create checklists for students engaged in multi-step activities, and post classroom expectations/rules. Be mindful of how many posters and murals are on walls, as too much color and visual stimulation can be distracting and frustrating.

LESSON PLANS/ACTIVITIES – Vary modalities when teaching Bible lessons/stories, as persons with disabilities often have communication-processing challenges, meaning it is difficult to process heavily-auditory, scripted sections. Include more visuals and hands-on components when instructing to appeal to the other senses and make learning God’s Word more memorable.

REPETITION/REDUNDANCY – Repeat, retell, rephrase. Oftentimes, persons with disabilities need to hear a main point or concept over and over until it is processed and sinks in. Plan to repeat; students need it and like the predictability. Consider giving out lessons ahead of class time for students for whom this would be beneficial.

CREATE CONSISTENCY – Regarding schedules and activities, many children with disabilities thrive on rigid, predictable routines. It helps try to make sense of their world.

Most of these accommodations/modifications cost very little money, and most can be made by knowing the strengths and challenges of the children/youth in your programs. Many of these enhancements benefit all participants, not just the individuals with disabilities.

Why Have A Respite Ministry? (Part 2)

Okay. So, you’re sold on respite, or at least you’re considering launching a program. So, what’s next? Pray. Pray for God’s wisdom and direction in this process.

One of the first things to look at is what types/models of respite are currently being offered in the community. Ask parents in your congregation what type of respite they most desire. Based on existing services and felt needs, determine in what direction you are headed – site based, home care, respitality weekend, co-op, or camp model. Here are some basic planning steps:

  1. PRAY.
  2. Identify leadership team.
  3. Develop mission/vision and program goals.
  4. Determine expenses/revenue.
  5. Program policy considerations
  6. Strategy of getting the word out

Having been part of numerous respite programs and models over the past 13 years at Access, leaders often ask what policies and procedures should be in place. The following are taken from a workshop I conducted, “The Road to Respite”:

  • Application Process (for volunteers/staff)
    • Will it include character references and background checks on all adults?
  • Medical
    • Protocol for emergencies and non-medical emergencies
    • Will there be medical staff?
    • Handling of medications, equipment, or complex medical needs
  • Safety
    • Check in/check out
    • Staff/participant ratio
    • Evacuation plan
    • Programmatic elements and level of risk
  • Sickness
    • Well-defined sick policy
    • Response to sickness during programming
  • Behavioral Emergencies/Management
    • What types of behaviors are allowed?
    • Are there behaviors that can’t be supported?
    • Development of positive behavioral supports
  • Child/Participant Protection Policies
    • Personal care/toilet issues
    • Boundary issues
    • Never alone wtih child or participant
  • Program Requirements
    • Admittance into program
    • Age of participants
    • Types of disabilities
    • Level of care

For more information on designing, planning, and implementing respite programs, do not hesitate to contact me at Jackie Mills-Fernald.

Additional Respite Resources

Why Have A Respite Ministry? (Part 1)

The model of ministry Jesus and his disciples so often used in the New Testament was that of meeting the physical or emotional need of those they served…a ministry to feed the hungry, care for widows and orphans, and clothe the poor before tending to the spiritual – living out ministry in deed, not just in word. As His ambassadors, we are called to do the same in all ministries, including our outreach to persons with disabilities.

By far the biggest need parents/caregivers encounter in caring for an individual with disabilities is the physical need for respite. What is respite, you might ask? Respite is often called the “gift of time” and provides short-term care of the person with disabilities, allowing the parent or caregiver much-needed relief and relaxation from the 24-hour/7-day-a-week demands of caregiving. Respite services are the most-requested support service of families impacted by disability. In a recent study examining the long-term impact of caring 24/7, 72% of parents/caregivers reported some physical/emotional effect from caregiving – anything from sleep deprivation to physical strain to stress-related illnesses.

So what can we do as the Body of Christ? Reach out to those in our community in need of respite relief by providing Christ-centered respite programs or respite workers. There are many different models of respite to consider. Listed below are just a few.

  • Site-Based Program – Develop a program held at your church on specific dates and times; train volunteers and staff to care for persons with disabilities.
  • In-Home Model – Train individual caregivers or teams to go into the home and provide care in their natural environments (Access provides this model as well as the site-based one)
  • Respitality Weekend – Sponsor a weekend away for parents/caregivers at a hotel or retreat covering costs, while providing the in-home care component.
  • Respite Co-Op Model – Connect parents, and facilitate a caregiving co-op; trade respite hours/services among families within the church.
  • Camps/Retreats – Sponsor or offer camp/retreat options for persons with disability.

By providing respite or respite options to special families impacted by disabilities, a struggling family may be transformed into a thriving family. Living out our faith caring for those in need allows us to meet a physical/emotional need or build a relationship to discuss our faith and belief in Jesus Christ. Not only do we bless the family, but we, as a church, are blessed as volunteers pursuing the very heart of God by serving an unmet need in the community.

For more tips on respite ministry considerations, stay tuned for ”Why Have A Respite ministry? (Part 2)”.

Caring for The Caregiver

I have spent the last few days in Tuscon, not on vacation but in a caregiving role caring for my father, who is legally blind, hard of hearing, has had double hip and knee replacements, and has short-term memory loss. I have been confronted with the joy and exhaustion of serving a family member in such a capacity, to be a true servant expecting nothing in return. Not only am I balancing caregiving responsibilities, but my mothering responsibilites and running Access Ministry as well.

Today while my dad was napping, I reflected on the need for self-care for those caring for a loved one who is sick or with disability and what we must do to support and encourage parents/caregivers to create moments of “me time” to understand in the long run what better, more compassionate, and balanced people it makes them. I’ve jotted down a few ideas and suggestions we as ministry leaders can do to help care for these parents/caregivers…simple, praticial things we can do.

  • Pray for parents/caregivers, that God would give them supernatural joy and robust stamina…all they need for the day.
  • Encourage connection, not isolation; have them join a small group or support group in your church. If necessary, assist in arranging care.
  • Model and teach spiritual discplines.
  • Assist in sending parents/caregivers on church retreats, and, if possible, pick up the cost.
  • Write a note or short email including a Bible verse or words of encouragement.
  • Arrange for a night out/off from the 24/7 care; provide them with a gift card to a restaurant or movie, while church volunteers provide care and household clean up, if needed.
  • Ask to have their to-do list for the day, and run all errands:  dry cleaner, grocery store, pick up other children from activites, etc.
  • Start a meal rotation, and provide a couple of meals.
  • Send over a small group to clean out the garage/basement or to do yard work.
  • Provide moms/caregivers a day at the spa or beauty salon.
  • Connect them with community resources.
  • Connect parents/cargivers traveling similar journeys with one another.
  • Commit to being a proactive listener and giving the gift of time.
  • Promote healthy lifestyle choices (e.g. exercise, sleep, nutritional choices).

For a parent/caregiver to provide the best care possible for their family member, they themselves must be at their best physically, emotionally, and  spiritually. We as church leaders can help with that and be the hands and feet of Christ to which we are called.

Thriving, Not Just Surviving, Special-Needs Ministry

Let’s face it. Ministry can be incredibly hard and challenging. Special-needs ministry can add another layer of challenge, often, dealing with behavioral episodes, medical concerns, and questions on how to include and best serve children with disabilities. On top of that, many special families are experiencing one or more issues:  financial considerations, marital strain, single parenthood, fractured family relationships, and dealing with stress, grief, or depression. As a special-needs or kidsmin leader, one can be overcome with how to meet the needs of all we serve. How do leaders brace themselves for the many demands and prepare themselves to thrive - not just survive – as leaders? Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Pray, pray, pray – Pray for God’s patience, strength, and joy. Pray for His wisdom and direction for ministry. Pray for His provision and protection.
  • Stay connected to the vine – Practice spiritual disciplines. Rely on His strength, not your own human efforts.
  • Maintain balance (God, family, ministry) – Be careful not to flip the order; keep first things first.
  • Take time off – Schedule down time and “me” time.
  • Create a network/support system of other special-needs leaders.
  • Have fun – A sense of humor is a requirement.
  • Pour into a younger leader – Intentionally plan for your replacement.
  • Fill your toolbox with disability education, behavior management, and inclusion strategies.
  • Build your team – Professionals in the field and volunteers sold out for the ministry
  • Commit to growing/developing your leadership skills.
  • Remember the big picture – you’re not just doing ministry; you’re impacting His Kingdom.

Still after 13 years of serving on staff of a special-needs ministry, I am excited and on fire to serve the Lord in this capacity. Until He tells me otherwise, I will continue doing so. In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to keep my vessel full to best serve Him by being the hands and feet of Christ for all His children, regardless of ability level.

Communicating And Collaborating with Parents

How do we as church leaders communicate with parents who have not been forthright with information regarding their children’s disabilities or unique needs? ”Help! We have a seven-year-old boy in the elementary Sunday school program who is nonverbal, makes no eye contact, spins objects nonstop on the table if allowed, does not participate in any activities with children or volunteers, and covers his ears during music/drama. It’s as though he is in his own little world….” Parents have only said he is slightly delayed. We as children’s leaders don’t know what to do. 

I am no medical doctor, but it sounds to me like this little guy may be on the Autism Spectrum, as many of the characteristics mentioned are typical with children on the Spectrum. Currently, 1 in every 91 children are being diagnosed with Autism. These parents may not yet have come to terms and are unable to vocalize their child has a disability due to fear of a label, or they themselves may be in total denial. Many times, parents of a child with a hidden disability are hoping no one notices their child’s unique or different behaviors. Either way, it is a potentially sensitive conversation that needs to be bathed in prayer. Plan a time to meet with parents other than at check in or check out on Sunday morning. 

Talking Points 

  • Explain the purpose of the meeting is to better understand their child and to meet his/her needs, so their child has success in the classroom.
  • Let parents know you are looking to partner with them, and create a collaborative approach to their child’s spiritual formation.
  • Find out the child’s likes and dislikes, what things interest him/her, as well as to what things he/she has an aversion.
  • Learn the child’s strengths and areas of  interest to incorporate into programming.
  • What is the child’s learning style:  visual, auditory or kinesthetic?
  • Ask about his/her school situation, setting, and the type of classroom he/she is in.
  • Does he/she have an IEP (individual education plan)? Most children with any diagnosis in the public school system have an IEP.
  • Would the parents be willing to share the plan or portions of the plan with you?
  • First, talk about the positives or strengths you have observed in their child, and then discuss the challenges. Ask parents for their input:  how do they communicate with their child, engage him/her, and redirect from inappropriate behaviors?
  • What classroom or program changes can we make to better help their child learn about Jesus?
  • In some cases, it may be appropriate for either parent to come into the classroom and model how they relate and interact with their child.
  • Finally, let parents know you are excited to work with them and have their child in your program, and you seek to make this a positive experience for their child and all the other students in the classroom.

After the meeting, create an action plan with steps you as church leaders will be taking, as well as next steps for the parents. Define a time to come back and meet to assess how the plan is working. Keep a log or journal on how the child is doing and what is working to help him/her in the classroom. Let parents know this may take a while to get it right, and you and your team are invested in working with them; but you need their support  as well.

That Bites

CeCe sat in a large group surrounded by music and all the chatter and movement of her second-grade classmates. CeCe began showing signs of becoming overwhelmed as she rocked in her chair, started making noise, and covered her ears with her hands. There was so much other activity that no one noticed until the little boy next to her stood up and yelled, “Hey, she just bit me!”. Sure enough, CeCe had leaned over and bitten him in the shoulder. Out of frustration and being on sensory overload, CeCe bit to send the message, “I can’t take this”, since all the other cues she’d been sending were missed in a sea of second graders.

CeCe is a sweet little girl with developmental delays and is nonverbal. Similar to many children like herself, she can be become overwhelmed by environmental and sensory input. In the large group, there was a lot to take in:  music, lights, movement, chatter, and singing. CeCe’s signs of increased agitation were missed as large group was filled with active second graders and too few volunteers that Sunday. Frustration is a reason some children bite, but there are others.

  • Biting can be a sensory need; the child craves that oral input. If that is the reason, there are special necklaces and toys designed for chewing for that purpose.
  • Sometimes children are self-biters, who bite themselves for tactile stimulation.
  • A child can be just plain angry and not have the verbal skills or coping strategies to work through it.
  • Attention-seeking behavior:  Many children know the quickest way to get attention is through maladaptive behaviors.

If you have a CeCe in your class, the first thing to do is to work with the child’s parents to understand the purpose or reason of the biting. CeCe bites when overloaded with sensory input; so, in the future, during large group she might have an alternate activity or be assigned a volunteer, so she is able to leave the room when she does begin to get agitated. Once you understand a plan can be developed, make sure other volunteers and teachers working with the student prone to biting are aware of it, as well as what triggers the behavior. Much of working through biting, and any behavior, is understanding the function of the behavior, as all behaviors either get us something we need or get us out of doing something.

The Wandering Child

Many parents of children with developmental delays or intellectual disabilities, such as Autism or Down Syndrome, go to great lengths to keep their children safe from wandering off or darting away from home.  The official term for when a child takes off like that is “elopement”. Homes have been equiped with all kinds of additional locking systems on doors, windows, gates, fences, as well as motion detectors and sensor devices to keep children in and danger out. In extreme cases, parents have notified local police stations of the propensity of their children to wander, and there are even personal tracking devices that attach to children’s wrists or ankles. The tracking devices assist local officials in finding children when the have eloped. School systems housing children that are known as flight risk have also taken precautions to keep the children as safe as possible.

But when a wandering child appears in our church and Sunday school programs, what systems have we put into place? There is no worse feeling for a children’s ministry worker to take a head count and realize he or she has fewer children than should be there and one might be missing. To where and when they disappeared you have no idea. Listed below are some steps to help ensure the safety of all children, including those that wander:

  • Consider additional classroom door locks, as long as they are not a fire marshall violation.
  • Keeps doors shut, if possible, or make use of baby gates.
  • Install inexpensive door alarms or motion sensors.
  • Create a volunteer position known as “the gatekeeper”, whose job is to watch the door.
  • Pair up wandering children with buddies.
  • Create visual reminders to put on doors, such as a bright red stop sign.
  • Create social stories to read or tell children regarding staying in the classrooms and not taking off.
  • Have in place a communication system to notify other church staff of eloped children, e.g. walkie-talkies, cell phones, pager systems,  and LCD displays.
  • Always have parents’ contact information, and know their whereabouts.
  • Be cognizant of high-risk times during programming or classes when wandering off may be easy, e.g. travel time between rooms or bathroom breaks.
  • Develop a reward system so that a child is praised and rewarded when he or she does not wander.

Most children with disabilities who wander off do so with a purpose. There is a place they would rather be than in class. In Access, we have one child who has always been found in our gym area the few times he has gotten away, and another child whose mother told us if he goes missing to make sure we check any place with a copy machine, as he is fascinated by them. Other children wander or run off because they are impulsive and have no understanding of danger or consequences in doing so. No matter what the reason, once you realize you have a wanderer in your classroom, it is time to be proactive and create a plan to keep the child safe as well as for what to do if he or she does go missing. Above all things, pray like crazy for the safety of those precious children in your care.

Taking the Plunge!

Jackie Mills-Fernald

Finally taking the plunge into the blog world.  After months of being asked, “Do you have a blog?” or being told  we should have one, Access Ministry is ready to go! There is a great need to encourage church leaders, kidmin (children’s ministry), and family pastors to become inclusive with intentionality. The idea that just making Sunday morning work is good enough does not allow for those who are differently abled to be fully integrated into the Body of Christ. In this country, there are approximately 54.5 million persons with disabilities and 600 million worldwide. That’s a lot of people in need of access to God’s Word and His house. It’s sad to say, often not only is the building inaccessible but so are church programs and the hearts of staffers and volunteers. So what would Jesus do? Of course He would spend time with those in need, just as he did in the Bible, with the sick, lame, deaf, blind, paralyzed, and mentally ill, loving them and giving them hope that God has not forgotten and loves them. Jesus sought out and spent His time with people in need. As His followers, we are called to be imitators of Christ and do the same. 

Access Ministry is the disability ministry of McLean Bible Church, reaching out to children/youth and young adults with disabilities and their families in the Washington, DC, area. Access began in 1996 serving a handful of families and now currently serves 500+ families by providing spiritual, emotional, and physical supports through a variety of program at two church campus locations. In Access programs, there are persons with Autism, Down Syndrome, CP, and physical and emotional challenges – all very different but one thing in common:  all were crafted by a Master Creator, all made in the image of God. 

Over the years as the ministry has grown, we have learned a few things along the way and continue to learn much. That information, knowledge, and experience we love to pass on to other church leaders. It is our desire that this blog be a place to gain information, be encouraged, ponder ideas, and, at times, laugh out loud. After 14 years of ministry, we have a few stories to tell. 

Reaching out to all God’s people, regardless of their cognitive ability, functional assessement, or body capital, is a great honor and blessing. Join us on that journey…to reach, teach, and serve all.

“They also will answer, ‘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 25:44-45