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Last updated: Mon. Jun. 09, 2008 - 10:50 am EDT

Worship geared to special-needs kids

Churches find ways to include kids who don't always fit in

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Special-needs faith programs

Local programs in the faith community for children or adults with disabilities include but are not limited to:

• ABLE Ministries, Emmanuel Community Church - 672-3377

• Avalon Missionary Church, Breakaway, respite evening for parents of children with disabilities - 747-1531

• Friendship Ministries for adults with developmental disabilities - 483-3171

• Harlan Christian Youth Center - 657-5877

• First Assembly of God, One Heart Ministries - 490-8585

• Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church, Amazing Apostles for school-age children - 485-9615

Note: Check with your church, synagogue or mosque in your neighborhood for others.

Other resources:

• For curriculum suggestions, books and educational materials on autism, call the Indiana Resource Center on Autism at 1-812-855-6508, or visit www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/.

• For resources on Down syndrome, call the Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana (DSANI) at 491-9964, or visit www.dsani.org.

DISCUSS
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One of the first things Lisa and Andrew Gottfried did when they moved to Fort Wayne from the Detroit area last summer was look for a church - but not just any church.

“We were looking for a special-needs ministry for Noah,” Lisa Gottfried said. Their son, Noah, 7, has autism and taking him to church was often a huge hassle. “My husband and I were going at separate times so someone could be with Noah.” They had found a church in Michigan that embraced their family, which also includes Sophia, 5. But just as they settled in, Andrew's job transferred him to Fort Wayne.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, one in 113 Hoosier children has autism.

“It's so important for families to have someplace to go where they are accepted,” said Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center on Autism at Indiana University Bloomington. “The church community should be an obvious place of understanding and acceptance.” A case that drew headlines in Minnesota, where a 13-year-old boy with autism was banned from attending a Catholic church, saddened Pratt.

“Families are already made to feel different because they have these challenges,” Pratt said. “Autism is very isolating for these parents. People will misinterpret behaviors. I have a lot of friends who are parents of children with autism who haven't been out to eat with friends for years. They've lost those friendships, become isolated. Some say, ‘If you would just parent your child better. …'”

According to The Associated Press, a priest at the Church of St. Joseph in Bertha, Minn., where Adam Race, 13, and his family have attended for years, filed a restraining order May 9 to keep Adam away because of what he called inappropriate and troublesome behavior, which included hitting another child, running through the church, spitting and urinating in church. Court documents, the AP reported, state the boy, who is big for his age, once grabbed another child and pulled her onto his lap; he also jumped into another family's car and started the engine.

The family has begun attending a different church. Meanwhile, the Diocese of St. Cloud has enlisted a lay mediator in hopes of resolving the issue.

A special-needs ministry

When Lisa Gottfried read the accounts of Race's story, “It brought tears to my eyes,” she said. Fortunately for the Gottfrieds, a friend told them about ABLE Ministries at Emmanuel Community Church, 12222 U.S. 24 W. ABLE is the acronym for A Blessed Life Embraced. The ministry was started two years ago by the Rev. Bob Bruce and Emmanuel member Marilyn Miller, whose 12-year-old son, Kyle, has Down syndrome. More than 1,300 people attend the church.

“The purpose of ABLE Ministries is to partner with (Emmanuel's) existing ministries to include those with special needs, support their families and provide awareness and education to the body,” Miller said.

Her vision for the program began to take shape when Kyle was just 3 and, like the Gottfrieds, the Millers were searching for a church that would accept and involve the whole family. Emmanuel had no formal program then, and Miller went everywhere in church with Kyle, who has underdeveloped verbal skills. When he was 5, Miller asked for a one-on-one assistant to replace her, and Ellen Kinzer, a physical therapist, stepped forward. The arrangement worked so well that Miller took her vision to Bruce.

“He's now at the point he doesn't need me all the time,” Kinzer said. On Sunday, after prompting Kyle that it was his turn to do a group skit, he joined the group, then told Kinzer to sit down, which she graciously did. During music time, Kinzer stood in the back, but Kyle looked periodically to see if she was there.

Understanding each child's individual needs lies at the core of the ministry, powered by volunteers who meet with families from the beginning to learn about their child's disability and needs. This summer, a special education teacher will begin providing consultation to the ministry.

Kristy Meeks, 15, has found her niche at Emmanuel. Although she has Down syndrome, she is welcomed and embraced by other teens in her Sunday school class and Sunday night youth activities, thanks to volunteer Tracey Best.

“Tracey helps get her plugged into activities on Sunday night,” said Meeks' mom, Kathy. “She breaks down game instructions. Kristy now takes a friend from school with her, and Tracey makes sure the girls are where they need to be. … When Tracey's there, she becomes an active participant. She's more outgoing, volunteers to do skits. She and Tracey have become good friends.”

When big group activities become over-stimulating for Noah, his assistants - Nathan Kline during the school year and Brooke Lyons for the summer - find a calming atmosphere for him in the children's library.

For Bob Bruce, such accounts reaffirm that ABLE Ministries is not only the moral thing to do, it is fulfilling Christ's commandment to the church, citing Scripture: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12 New Living Translation).

In recalling a family who some years back visited Emmanuel in hopes of looking for a church that could provide care and ministry for their son with severe autism, he said, “People were uncertain how to care for him. The family left. We just really didn't have anything in place at that time. It's something that's always bothered me.”

Educating parishioners, even those not directly involved with the children, is crucial, Miller said. ABLE Ministries has prayer partners, provides brochures and special presentations, and meets with church leaders, teachers and other staff.

“It's the accommodations that are really important,” Pratt said. “It doesn't mean the child sits and kicks and screams and torments other children. But when kids are given the supports, they can do really well in these settings.”

Concept spreads locally

Others in the faith community also are stepping up to provide planned programs for children and adults with disabilities, said the Rev. Brian Pratt (no relation to Cathy Pratt), director of Lutheran Disability Outreach for northeast Indiana, which runs Friendship Ministries for adults with developmental disabilities.

“If you have a 52-year-old guy with Down or autism, do you put him in with the 3-year-olds? No. But you're not going to put him in the pastor's Bible class either,” Brian Pratt said. Working with the more severely developmentally disabled, he said, is not for the person who is “looking for a pat on the back, a thank you for telling him about Jesus.”

Rewards come in the form of smiles. With one young man who routinely attended Friendship Ministries for years, staring blankly out the window, a rich blessing for Pratt was hearing him recently try to say the Lord's Prayer.

According to census figures, about 40 million people, or 16 percent of the population, have a disability. “There shouldn't be shame associated with it, shouldn't be blame,” Cathy Pratt said.

Brian Pratt puts it this way: “Accessibility is not a wheelchair ramp. Accessibility is in your heart.”


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