By LINDA M. LINONIS
Kim Cole understands the isolation and criticism that families with special-needs children may experience.
She and her husband, Rich, have lived it with their son, Ian, 17, who is autistic.
At one time, Ian’s behavior prevented the Coles from attending church, which was devastating for them. They knew other families had similar experiences.
“We love the Lord,” she said. “We wanted to grow as Christians and be with other Christians.”
Last August, the Coles saw members of Faith Chapel Fellowship in Salem’s Grande Parade. “We prayed about it,” Cole said, then the family started attending services.
And one of what Cole calls “10,000 miracles” occurred as Ian’s behavior began to change and improve. “He was sensitive to clapping,” she said, adding now he is a drummer on the chapel’s praise team. “Loving on us” is how Ian described his family’s reception at the church.
But, because of their experience, Cole suggested developing a sensory appropriate worship service for families of special-needs children with physical and mental challenges and autism.
Pastor Larry Paxson said the idea went to the administrative council. Its response was, “How can we do it as a church ministry?” “This is our way of ‘being the church,’” he said. “We have a ‘dream team’ here who figures out how to connect the dots and get things done. They figured it out.”
That set the plans in motion for the special-needs ministry, which will conduct its first service at 6 p.m. June 14.
Pastor Paxson said the the nondenominational church already conducts a Saturday evening worship service in the sanctuary to meet the needs of members. “It’s casual and family-oriented,” he said of the service with attendance ranging from 55 to 70. Sunday worship attracts about 200.
The special worship will take place at the same time but in the fellowship hall. That will allow parents to attend the regular worship service or leave to have some respite time, he said. “It’s not a baby-sitting service,” he said, but an opportunity for children to be engaged in sensory appropriate worship.
The pastor said the church already has 20 volunteers to assist with children. The volunteers are from Faith Chapel and other area churches, the pastor said, adding many are special-needs teachers or retired from that field. Cole, who is an occupational therapy assistant, also will contribute her skills to the effort. “The volunteers are qualified,” Pastor Paxson said, adding they also have been screened.
Because special-needs children may be sensitive to sound and sights, the first worship service will be a gauge of what is needed. “We’re preparing a lot to a minimum,” Cole said. “We have worship songs to ‘Jesus Love Me.’” Acoustic music will be played to see how children respond.
She added the service may have to approach children “at different levels.” Pastor Paxson said the number of volunteers will provide for one-on-one assistance. “We just want to present teaching in a way for children to understand,” he said.
Cole said the first worship will be “about getting to know the kids and what they need.” “We can adapt to them,” she said.
The special worship will be open to children with special needs up to 22 years old.
Cole said those attending might make a cross craft, which will be individualized to each child depending on their ability.
She said families and special- needs children will recognize the many “fidgets” that also will be used. “They often help children hold attention and help them to focus,” Cole said of the toylike objects.
Cole said families with children with conditions such as autism, ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can find themselves “isolated.”
“Outbursts and meltdowns by these children,” she said, can’t be remedied with spanking or words of discipline though some may think so. “This will be a place where families can come and not be judged or criticized.”
She added, “The church is a safe haven. God opened the path.”
Pastor Paxson said the church has committed to the special-needs ministry for six months, noting it has to have to timen to develop. “It goes at His pace,” the pastor said. “We know it may take time for people to come,” Cole said. She said people will also learn about the ministry through word of mouth.
Today, the church youth group will distribute candy bars advertising the special-needs worship at the Quakertown Super Kids Classic Race, a soap box derby for children with special needs, that starts at 8:30 a.m. at city hall.
Pastor Paxson founded Faith Chapel 13 years ago and the church has been at its present location eight years. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Pastor Mike Hileman is youth leader and associate pastor and Pastor Tony Maroni, teaching pastor.