Roy Zeighami fights back tears in a video on the Stonebriar Community Church website. After his son Reed was diagnosed with terminal Sanfilippo syndrome, he says, “We decided we needed to go back to church, because we’d been trying to do everything on our own. We went back to the church that Reed had grown up in and they told us, ‘We don’t really have a place for him here.’”
The Zeighamis are not alone. A recent study by the Barna Group shows that the church in America is failing children with special needs. Nearly 10 million families and caregivers in the study reported that they lack the support they need from their local churches.
Some area churches, however, are bucking that trend. Zeighami says that everything changed for his family when they found the special-needs ministry at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco. At Stonebriar, he says, “There are people who care and love him for who he is and accept him for who he is.”
The Stonebriar special-needs ministry is committed to making every aspect of the church inclusive for all members, birth through adult, according to Meaghan Wall, pastoral leader of special needs. On Sunday mornings, children with special needs are involved both in regular classrooms, either on their own or with a buddy, or in the special-needs suite, which is designed for children who need a calmer environment and more individualized attention.
The focus for all children, regardless of their need, is fellowship and worship. Wall says that their goals are twofold: to allow parents and families to attend regular services and to meet to the spiritual needs of children with special needs.
The thought is echoed by Helen Morris, director of special-needs ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, where children are also included in regular Bible fellowship classrooms or in a special-needs suite while their parents attend the service. She says that many parents who come to a service at Prestonwood report that it’s the first time they’ve been able to leave their child and not have someone come to get them in the middle of a service to help manage an issue.
It can be a significant problem for families who attend churches that don’t offer special-needs ministries, Morris says. “Parents have to take turns going to services, or they end up not going at all – which means the other children in the family don’t get to go. We really consider this a family ministry.”
In meeting the needs of families, churches with special-needs ministries often make a concerted effort to reach out to siblings too. Many churches, including Stonebriar, Prestonwood and First United Methodist Church of Arlington, offer monthly respite nights so parents can leave their children with special needs, as well as their typically developing siblings, to have a night out, secure in the knowledge that their children are safe and well cared for. At First UMC’s respite night, children with special needs are matched with a one-to-one volunteer. Their typically developing siblings are also matched with a volunteer, says the Reverend Kay Lancaster, so they’ll also have a chance to feel special and have someone’s undivided attention.
Wall, Morris and Lancaster are each hoping to reach out to expand the services for special needs beyond their own churches. They already network with other programs to coordinate their respite nights and advertise them to the broader community. Their programs are welcoming to any families with a child with special needs, and many families take advantage of respite nights in churches other than their own. They are hoping that special-needs programming will catch on in other churches. “Space is limited,” Wall says, “and we know we’re just scratching the surface.”
Says Lancaster: “It breaks our heart to have a waiting list.”
“The need is out there,” Morris adds. “We have lots of visitors.” Churches such as Prestonwood know they have to keep growing, evolving and changing to meet the needs of their young members with special needs – but they’re willing to make adjustments whenever needed.
Despite the challenges, it’s clear that these ministries and others like them are meeting a tremendous need. “Parents find that their kids are not always welcome everywhere,” Morris says, “but they are welcomed here. We’re sincere when we say we’re glad to have them here.”
Published November 2013