by Katie Garvert
At the end of the day, will we really make a difference in the lives of our special needs families and students?
I worked for nine years as the leader of a special needs ministry where we grew our ministry from serving seven families to serving over 100 families. Yes, we had many success and heartwarming stories. Yes, we had severe learning curves and humble moments. Yes, we made mistakes and yes, we saw God change lives. However, this question is what kept me up many nights and broke my heart when I knew the answer to, “Are we making a difference for this student,” ended with a NO.
About the time I was ready to leave my position because I was becoming burned out chasing after the dream—families would engage with Jesus knowing He created their child perfectly—I came across a life-changing book. This book forever change my parenting, counseling and leading other families in following Jesus and accepting their disabilities/limitations.
My husband and I picked up Sticky Faith written by Dr. Kara E. Powell. I read the first chapter with my mouth wide open shocked knowing that over 50 percent of freshman stop believing in Jesus the first semester in college, and now I am raising two daughters I pray and hope will cling to Jesus all of the years of their lives. This was the second book our small group decided to read together and would define what our small group’s goal was: to wrap all of our hearts around one another and speak into the lives of each child helping support and teach godly principles as they grow and mature into their adult years.
Powell teaches a five-to-one ratio. As parents, we select and call on five other godly adults who will speak into the lives of our children to support, encourage, strengthen and lead our kids unconditionally through mistakes and celebrations. My husband and I wanted to see how this would play out in our family and questioned, would it really make a difference enriching our lives as a family and our unique individual daughters? Within a year, all four of us had new purpose and our lives were enriched.
I started to wonder, would this five-to-one model positively impact our families with special needs? I began installing this method one by one, with a goal setting meeting either for our students transitioning into high school or with our adults who were showing signs of depression or low self-worth. I knew this would be hard and possibly overwhelming because families with children with special needs tend to be more isolated than families who do not have a child with special needs. We heard many families not sign up for our church small groups: “Most people do not understand or appreciate the differences in my family, so we are not going to sign up. It is easier to stay home.”
However, in other circumstances, I had seen these families become advocates for their child. I had seen them fight for their child to ensure a great education and fair treatment. I thought, if we could capitalize on their advocacy and acknowledge their isolation and propose a checklist to get them at least to a three-to-one ratio, I think they will see a difference in their entire family. And we did. Families would attend church together and grab a cup of coffee after service. I was seeing Facebook messages and photos of students spending time with different adults and showing their appreciation for that adult taking time to see them for who they are. We saw our numbers decrease in suicide prevention procedures, we saw lifelong friendships flourish and BLOOM.
Our family was asked to obey our Father and move last year to a new town, new job and new Christian community. We are blessed and excited to be in our new home and community. What we miss most is when one of our children from small group has a volleyball or baseball game we cannot attend, or meals with one another each month, or just seeing our children run and jump into the arms of our friends who said YES to walking alongside them during their adolescent years and into their adult lives.
It is scary to invite someone into your life. Imagine how scary it is to invite people into your life when the complications of a disability define how your family functions in very different ways. God does not call us to live life alone. Powell and Sticky Faith created a powerful tool that will change your family and change your purpose in life as an adult. She also proposes a great new initiative for special needs ministries: helping foster relationships so that as a ministry leader, you are not the only person in that family’s life speaking words of encouragement.
Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. WVC currently serves 70 individuals affected by special needs. Over the past eight years, Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age group and stage of life for this multi-site church. The Access ministry hosts a parent support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and summer camp experiences for children and students with special needs. Prior to joining the WVC staff, Katie was a special education teacher in the Colorado public school system.