GRIFFIN — Recently we published a story about Kim Grist, wife of Nelson Grist, pastor of Orchard Hill First Baptist Church, and their son Zachary, who has Down Syndrome. In that article Kim related her reaction to the news that her son would be a special needs child and the challenges resulting from his disabilities.
In this follow-up story we shall probe deeper into the trials, blessings, and unexpected joys of having a special needs child and follow Zach’s progress into adulthood.
Kim also offers some great counsel on how to develop a ministry to families with special needs children.
Kim stated, “So often when a child with special needs is born into a family who are actively involved in a church the people typically embrace the family and the child with love and create an appropriate environment for their spiritual growth. It is almost as if the child is literally adopted by that church family.
“However, it has been our observation that it is much more difficult for a family new to the area or an unchurched family to be embraced with similar receptivity and love. If you doubt that, put it to the test. The next time you are in church and a baby cries, take note of the reaction in your congregation. How do they respond? Do you see backward glances? Do you hear comments like, ‘Why doesn’t she take that baby to the nursery?’
“Now imagine a family that has a special needs child. If his/her handicap is recognizable, how do you respond? Do you look away? Do you count your blessings? If new places and loud noises cause children to act inappropriately, handicapped children’s reaction can be even more pronounced. How do you address their needs?”
Kim is also careful to point out the importance of leaders of small groups making adequate preparation for special needs children. Special attention needs to be given not only to the children, but also to their parents who have special concerns and needs as well. While some churches claim to be prepared to receive and nurture special needs children other churches actually serve these dear people with excellence.
“Before my husband became a pastor we called one pastor ahead of time and told him we were coming to his church to visit,” Kim recalled. He listened carefully to our need and immediately thought of a teacher that would be a good fit. He didn’t assume that the teacher would welcome us, but spoke with her before we came and made sure she had an additional teacher in the room with her. It was a very positive experience and we were so grateful.”
Kim continued, “Nelson was a coach in our first years of marriage, but one day he surprised me by resigning his job and indicated he felt called into the ministry. He turned in his coaching whistle and decided to preach the Gospel. He started his education all over again with studies in theology. During those days he served churches as their student pastor.
“After graduation we responded to church inquiries by sharing our biographical information that included the fact we had a child with Down Syndrome. Those churches did not follow up with us; and someone suggested that we remove the reference to Zach having Down syndrome. Once Nelson actually spoke to search committees he did advise them that we had a child with Down Syndrome. The churches he was called to serve were very welcoming and responsive to our children.”
Love and acceptance
Kim gave an example to illustrate their church’s love and acceptance of Zachary. She recollected, “Though Zachary is a man of few words, he likes to help. It had become his self-appointed job to empty the trashcans in the children’s department on Sunday evenings. He doesn’t tell time but he has an internal clock that motivates him to go about his life responsibilities at the same time and day etc.”
One Sunday evening the worship service had gone on a little longer than usual, because it was Easter and the choir was singing a Cantata.
“Imagine everyone’s surprise when at the close of the service Zachary, having come from the children’s department, entered the sanctuary loaded down with a large black trash bag over his shoulder. My husband acknowledged Zachary and said, ‘This is the Easter Cantata, Zach, we weren’t expecting Santa Claus.’
“Now since we don’t live in a perfect world, not everyone was happy with Zach’s dramatic entrance, but for the most part we escaped censor. Life with a special needs child is an adventure that if nothing else always brings the unexpected. So imagine a family with a disabled family member looking for a church home. It is not unreasonable to worry that there would be no place for their child, or that their family and child would not be welcome.”
The intrigue and exploits of Zachary Grist do not end with the unexpected entrance into the worship center at the end of a cantata, but Kim relates his fascination with Superman.
“Just as Zachary was entering first grade,” Kim explained, “We relocated. At that time he was obsessed with Superman. He would come home from school, put on one of his older brother’s t-shirts, and stuff the shirt with towels to create the appearance of muscles. He also liked to climb trees, and when I returned home from work in the afternoon I would often find him waiting for me in the tree in his self-made Superman costume.
“Imagine my chagrin when one day I came home to find that Zachary had decided to substitute items from my undergarment drawer for his typical towels. I was a bit miffed at him because it was a hot day and Zach had begun to strip the items of clothing he had used for muscles and had hung them on the tree as he climbed down.
“There it was for all its glory – the good, bad, and ugly, dangling from the tree branches in my front yard for all the world to see. Let’s say that a family just moved into the neighborhood and noticed this phenomenon. What is the first thing you think? Would it be, ‘Let’s invite that nice family who hangs their underwear in the front yard to church? You would probably be more likely to call the sheriff’s office to see if there is an ordinance against hanging underwear in a tree.”
Kim has some helpful suggestions for meeting the needs of those with disabled children. She asks, “Does your church seek to meet the needs of those with disabilities? If you do not, why not? Disabilities come in a wide variety from severe to moderate. But most assuredly your community includes many such families. Remember, families with special needs individuals have to make a great effort to arrive especially arrive on time. It is important for churches to be welcoming. Introduce yourself, get on an eye level with the child if possible, and welcome the child along with his/her family.
“It has been our experience that a special needs ministry can be started by using a typical early primary to 2nd grade curriculum. There is now much specific literature available. LifeWay has excellent special needs resources. My favorite is picture cards. Adaption tips are also posted with specific articles to help train volunteers on topics like ADHD, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, etc.”
Welcoming parents and special needs children
Kim also offers the following suggestions: First, be welcoming to parents and children with any disability. Speak in a respectful way and open a dialogue in order to understand the family’s specific needs. There are many families that forego church attendance due to their child’s hyperactivity disorders and other mild disabilities.
“Unfortunately, families with even mild special needs issues often are met with a demand that if the child is to participate the parent must attend with them. Avoid ultimatums but rather open a respectful dialogue with the parent or caretaker. Find out what best motivates the child. If you feel it would be a benefit for the parent to participate in the classroom, ask if the parent would be willing to assist you for a week or on a temporary basis in an effort for you to learn what works best for their child. Many times simple modifications are all that is required, such as seating placement so that you face the child when speaking.
“Secondly, the teacher-student ratio should begin with two leaders – one teacher and one assistant. Having an assistant in the classroom to provide assistance to the individual as needed is crucial. There are many people who do not feel as though they have the ability to teach. A teacher’s assistant need not teach, but their ability to provide individual attention as needed is invaluable.
“Third, make sure that the child is in an appropriate environment. Younger children can typically remain in the classroom with their age equivalent or perhaps a year younger as long as there is an additional worker on hand to redirect and/or encourage the disabled student.
“As children with more moderate to severely handicaps reach the middle school years, we have found it benefits all to start a class specifically for them. For example, often those with disabilities are more sensitive to noise levels. Sometimes this can be helped by playing soft music in the background or in more severe situations actually providing headphones so that they might listen to Christian music or videos.
“Fourth, it is important to note that most families with handicapped children do not attend church, much less Sunday School. Providing a safe and appropriate learning environment frees the whole family up so that they may attend worship services.”
As most special students have special friends don’t be surprised if your class grows more quickly than you imagine. Enlist support from teachers in your church that can offer suggestions and help based on their experience with development delays and/or learning disabilities.
“Teaching this class does not require a special education degree, but instead qualities like patience, a committed spirit, and the willingness to love the child is all that is necessary. These individuals have the ability to not only learn but give back. Because of our adult son’s autistic characteristics, he often is a man of very few words. However, he enjoys helping around the church by setting up chairs and handing out bulletins prior to Sunday School. Zachary is not a greeter, because he most probably will not speak, but he is on hand to help the greeters by handing out bulletins.”
Hopefully, Kim Grist’s story and suggestions will give you and your church meaningful insights as you determine to meet the needs of families with special needs children. Please pray for Nelson and Kim and their sons Christopher, Zachary, and Micah. Christopher, age 33, who is married with two children, has recently found out that he has pancreatic cancer.