Debbie leads a special needs ministry for youth at Newburgh UMC in Newburgh, Indiana ( find out more here ).  I asked her to share a little about what it is like to run this type of ministry program.  I hope it can be an inspiration to others doing special needs ministry and a helpful resources to those thinking of starting one in your own church.  -Allison Curts

Our Special Needs Ministry has been a huge joy for me to work on. We have a small group that includes 10 regular youth and young adults that range in age from 6th grade to their late 20’s. Of those 10 only 3 go to our church so, 70% are from the community. In our community once they graduate high school there is not much for people with mental handicaps to do for social interaction. That was part of the reason for starting this group. We currently meet twice a month. We sat down to decide what some of the things we have learned doing this are, and a couple of those things are talked about below.

This ministry can complement your regular youth program well. Our special needs youth do meet slightly earlier the rest of the youth group as they need extra time in the evening to wind down. We start our evening with gym time or if it is nice outside we go out to the church’s gaga pit. After about 20 minutes we go in for our lesson which is usually accompanied by an activity or craft. Then all the youth come together for snack time and worship time. This format has worked very well for us and some of our more active special friends really enjoy getting to sit with everyone else to worship.

When you start looking for volunteers look for people with a sense of humor and patience. I have the advantage that I knew several of our youth prior to starting the youth group from Special Olympics and could already understand most of what they say. You may find that you will just need to be patient and spend time with your youth to be able to understand what they are saying. When doing activities and crafts and be open to the possibility that you may have to have a youth and adult go to a neighboring room to finish up when the noise level gets to a point that the youth is bothered by it. Be prepared to get hit with dodge balls unexpectedly when someone wants to play and that is the only way they know to ask. I have been ganged up on at times by 4 youth (most of my boys don’t throw hard at all) and one adult and I just laugh gather up as many balls as I can hold, then start throwing it back at them. You should see huge grins when this happens. A couple of our leaders are men that we asked to come in for just one evening to help with a special activity. They enjoyed the evening and hanging out laughing, helping and just watching how everyone interacted together. At the end of that evening they wanted to know when we were meeting again so they could come back. They are both now regular leaders and the youth really enjoy hanging out with them. Sometimes we have a youth that just wants to sweep the gym floor and one of the men will just sweep with him and they will talk us they go around the room. You can just follow their lead in some respects in what to do in open gym time.

One of the main struggles we have had is in finding curriculum to use for lesson time. Some of the available lessons I have seen for this group are really geared toward much younger audiences. I just have to keep on searching or write my own lesson, which started out to be a challenge for me. It still takes me a lot of time to write my own but is somewhat easier than it used to be.

I would start this kind of group again in a minute if I were asked. The first time you see that student that is nonverbal running in the door with a huge grin on their face because they have found a place that they belong, it is such a great feeling that it makes it all worth the challenges.


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