Churches step up services for special-needs families

Sacramento, USA - Most families with special-needs children do not attend worship services, say disability experts. Lora Knopf knows why.

Knopf's 6-year-old daughter, Shelby, has cerebral palsy. She cannot walk or talk. A few years ago, Knopf remembered, she picked up Shelby at Sunday school and was approached by her daughter's teacher. The teacher said she just didn't know what to do about Shelby. They didn't have a place for her, she said.

"She was basically asking us to find a new church," said Knopf. "It was heartbreaking."

Knopf believes many families with special-needs children stay away from worship services because they want to avoid a similar situation. "No family wants to go through that. They don't feel wanted."

That is changing.

Houses of worship throughout the Sacramento, Calif., area now are stepping up efforts to reach these families, offering special-needs Sunday school classes, one-on-one buddy programs to match up kids in class, and even free baby-sitting on Friday nights. One church will sponsor a prom for special-needs teens.

A church with a special-needs ministry "can make all the difference in the world," said Knopf. Her family now attends Lakeside Church in Folsom, Calif., where Shelby is enrolled in Sidekick Alley, Lakeside's special-needs program. She praises the director, Cheri Wieland, and her staff.

"They interact with her, she has friends." Knopf said. "She's not that kid in the corner in the wheelchair anymore."

Reaching out to the disabled has long been an overlooked need, according to Bonnie Bjere, Northern California director of Joni and Friends, which ministers to people with disabilities. "There's a whole community of people who are invisible and don't come to church," Bjere said. "Churches are finally waking up to that."

Faith leaders have seen the growing need in their congregations, particularly with the increasing number of children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.

"Pastors want to do something to help them but they often feel ill-equipped," said Sheila Haut, spokeswoman for William Jessup University in Rocklin where 25 local church leaders attended a conference on starting disability ministries two weeks ago. "They didn't know that with a few small steps they can make a big difference."

First, say experts, church leaders should survey their congregation to determine need and find church members willing to work in these programs.

Church members who work in the health field, or who have children with special needs, often start the programs. Haut, whose son is on the autistic spectrum, and another parent launched the program at First Presbyterian of Roseville. Fifteen to 20 children now participate.

Cynthia Zierhut, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with autistic children at the UC Davis MIND Institute, started the program at Sacramento's Capital Christian Center.

"It's biblical, it's absolutely important for houses of worship to include all people in their congregation," Zierhut said. "I believe every church, temple and synagogue should have a special- needs program."

At Capital Christian Center, children in the Champions program meet in a room with sensory-based materials that children find calming, such as swings. Parents told Zierhut they wanted their children to be mainstreamed as much as possible, and the staff works toward that goal. Each child is matched with a trained church volunteer. The program now has 35 families enrolled but the number of children who show up each week varies.

"A lot of these children have medical needs or sleep issues," said Zierhut. "It's so much harder for these parents just to get out the door."

Zierhut and church staff are sponsoring An Evening of Dreams, a prom for disabled teens, on Friday. "We feel that we have to do these for these kids, especially now when so many programs for them are being cut."

Special-needs programs vary from church to church. Some have a designated room for the children where they can have their own Sunday school class. Many, such as Capital, bring them into Sunday school or children's church that other children their age attend, accompanied by a church volunteer.

Not every church must have a comprehensive special-needs ministry like Capital Christian Center or Bayside in Granite Bay two churches with large programs. Zierhut has helped four other churches start programs, including one that had only two children with special needs in the congregation.

"The program should be representative of the church body," said Zierhut. "I think it's awesome that they wanted to do something for these families to make them feel as welcome as possible. ... They only had to make a few adjustments."

Christie Fitzgerald said she is impressed with the program at Lakeside Church. Before she and her husband found the church, they would leave their 6-year-old son, Casie, who has a rare metabolic syndrome, at home with a baby sitter. "He would ask to come with us and we couldn't take him," said Fitzgerald. Now the entire family worships together.

She encourages other families who want to find a church not to give up.

"We came to the church for our son, but we have stayed because they have such a caring community."