Submitted by Meredeth Brown, First Christian Church in Kilgore, TX
One simple question turned into an outreach ministry that touches many families in our community: “How can we include a very loved, special needs 4-year-old in VBS?”
God prompted the next thought, “Who else could we include? Who else could we love on in our community that had special needs?” In that moment the idea to host a Special Needs VBS was born.
We were nervous as we waded into unfamiliar land, but there was a calmness that comes when you are obedient to God. We made extra preparations, and all volunteers were trained in recognizing and responding to a variety of special needs. We set up a sensory and changing room, and a special place for parents and caregivers. We prayed and waited to see who would be touched by this extra-special VBS.
God answered with seven guests that first year (2014). We had a wonderful time singing, dancing and learning about God’s love. We received comments like, “This is so great, we don’t get to do things like this.” The parents’ faces lit up as they saw their children participating in music.
In fact, everyone’s faces lit up seeing the pure joy on the guests’ faces. There were a few tears as the parents received the crafts their children made. For some, this was the first craft their child had ever created, so it didn’t matter if it was a few strokes of the paintbrush or if the picture was fully covered – it was done by their loved one and they cherished it.
If you are a nuts and bolts person like me, you might wonder what was different from the typical VBS and what challenges we had. Our biggest challenge was to get the word out to the special needs community and for them to trust us with their kids. Most special families do not attend church and those that had attended had commonly been deeply hurt by the Church. On top of that, many of the kids have special medical needs and, as parents, we have a hard time trusting others to take care of our kids.
Over the last five years, we have gained their trust and this last year had over 30 participants join us for VBS.
One way we earn their trust is having trained medical personnel on site. Each night there’s at least one nurse present. We also have local community support. Each year we partner with the fire department. They love to help with games and it’s always a hit when they show off their gear and trucks. In fact, the community support has been so overwhelming we are able to have a community rotation. This allows time for the firefighters to show the trucks, a therapy horse to visit, a local business to provide sno-balls, and our beloved police dog even joins us.
Beyond trust, another challenge is to think on an individual basis. Our motto is “Whatever our guest needs!” We adapt to what our guest needs and we’ve learned this is easiest by having individual buddies available for each guest. Some participants need a one-on-one buddy, and some don’t. This system prepares to provide the best experience.
Minus the sensory room, changing room, and extra volunteers, we do not change much from a typical VBS. The decorations, music, lessons, and most of the crafts stay the same. Games and snacks are the exceptions. We don’t serve snacks to avoid allergy complications, and we modify games depending on the group.
We now have a support group who meets monthly, and we offer an annual respite day, which is attended by VBS families. We also found a niche in providing special needs-friendly craft booths at city festivals and are known in the community for this consistent outreach.
All of these programs grew from one simple question and the desire to include a loved little girl. God answered, and this experience has been a blessing to all involved!
Not only is that one little girl not being left out, but many more are being included and experiencing God’s love. We can’t wait for the summer so we can do it all again!