Special needs ministry works to lighten loads

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Program helps families, corps officers incorporate children with special needs.

Parents of special needs children face an array of day-to-day challenges, but Kendra Holly, a soldier at the Pasadena Tabernacle Corps, noticed that more could be done to help them from the corps level.

Holly, who has a background in special education, approached Lt. Col. Edward Hill, territorial secretary for program, with the idea of starting a special needs ministry last August.

“Because of my training, I could see that at times well intentions were falling short of intentional ministry,” Holly said. “I knew that we had an amazing opportunity to develop a ministry to help these families actively participate at their local corps.”

Through interviews Holly conducted, she discovered that it can be difficult for families with a special needs issue to integrate into a corps programs. She found that adding a child with a disability into a program can be a source of anxiety for the youth worker and corps officer, especially if they do not have support for working with this population.

“When you are a parent of a child with a disability there is always guilt involved when you bring your child to a program,” said Major Nancy Helms-Cox, director of field training for the Western Territory and mother of a deaf son with cerebral palsy. “Everyone loves my son, but in the past he has attended programs where he is unable to participate due to his disability.”

As a result of such circumstances, Holly said many parents then neglect their own spiritual growth to tend to their child’s needs at church.

“As a ministry, I hope to empower the corps officers and youth workers with information to successfully provide a program that makes modifications as needed,” she said.

Holly established an official special needs ministry for the Western Territory and began by releasing information on how to best work with special needs children and tips for adaptations in ministry. Then, she began working with directly with people to offer additional resources to better integrate children with special needs. So far, she’s advised six families and corps officers at three separate corps.

Julie Sutton, also a soldier at the Pasadena Tabernacle and a mother of a child with Spina Bifida, said, “Being a parent of a disabled child is very stressful. There is the reality of having no control over your child’s life, surgeries, hospitalizations, and education. Everything is more difficult. You can’t just show up to Songster rehearsal or Sunday school without the worry of childcare issues.”

The goal of special needs ministry is to adapt Salvation Army programs to meet the needs of children like Sutton’s son and provide a place that they can be treated as closely to their peers as possible.

For example, Holly said that perhaps the child cannot memorize the Junior Soldier Pledge, but with picture flash cards they can state the meaning behind each declaration. Or, a child with hyperactivity may be given a sensory object to play with during the service to keep them busy. She recommended that one child with autism begin assisting in the corps’ lunch distribution following each worship service to engage him and utilize his strengths.

In February, Holly extended the information via a special needs ministry newsletter to all Western Territory officers and any interested programs or individuals. In the newsletter, she offers general information on disabilities and tips for the ministry setting.

Holly said she is encouraged by the emails of support and interest since beginning the ministry. If the program grows enough, Holly said she would travel to different corps or camps around the territory to provide assistance.

“My hope for the program would be that we see the value in adapting our programs to be a place of respite and love for these families who already face daily challenges,” she said. “I believe in God’s value for every human life and it is our responsibility to thoughtfully, intentionally and respectfully engage everyone in ministry.”

For more information, contact specialneeds@usw.salvationarmy.org.

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