This is the story of how a small congregation with limited resources learned how to respond to a need of its own and other needs of its community.
First United Presbyterian Church of Baldwin is a congregation of 110 members in a community of 3,984 people. At the officers retreat in January 2010, a newly-elected elder shared with the group the experience when one of her friends with a child with special needs was met at the door of the church by the priest and told she and her son were not welcome because her son was too disruptive.
The group agreed this was one of the saddest things they had ever heard and began discussing how we could be a church where all God’s children are welcome. That phrase has become our mission statement in reaching out to children with special needs.
Being Presbyterian, we referred the issue to the Outreach Committee. They picked it up enthusiastically and began visiting another congregation in the area that has build up a large ministry, from scratch, with children with special needs.
The committee also started studying printed information. There were two pieces of advice we kept hearing over and over: start with the children you have, and make sure you ask parents what will meet the needs of their children and themselves.
We have two young boys with autism, and their mother was on the committee, so that is where we began to address the issue. We decided to put together a room with special toys and tools for children with autism.
The Session designated a room to be used as the Quiet Room. We applied for and received a $900 mission grant from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. With $689 of the grant money we purchased two gym mats, a mirror, chalk, markers, a weighted vest, two therapy balls and a mini-trampoline.
Donations by members of the congregation included homemade afghans, a boom box and a small pup tent. The balance of the grant money went into the fund for renovating the men’s and women’s bathrooms to be wheelchair accessible.
As the pastor, I kept hearing people from the congregation ask, “Why do we need a Quiet Room?” Then, at one of the Presbyterian Women’s meetings, a woman who had grown up in the congregation and moved away after she married, shared with the group what it meant when the church and pastor in the town where she was living made a special effort to reach out to her daughter, who has Down Syndrome.
I never heard people ask why a Quiet Room was needed again.
The Quiet Room has become the most popular room and is usually not very quiet! It is the place where all of the children play together, with the understanding that if a parent needs the room for their child, everyone else will leave without discussion.
One Sunday morning as the room was being organized, two of the women from the Outreach Committee met with all the children to put together the rules for the room. This is what they came up with:
- The room is to be used for children with special needs, along with parents. Other children should ask permission to come in and should use their inside voice.
- One person at a time is allowed on the equipment ― TAKE TURNS!!!
- The trampoline is to used for jumping only ― NO FLIPS!!! (and the handrails are for hands only!!!)
- NO SHOES!!!
In addition, Children’s Message times in worship and Sunday School have been used to help educate all the children about autism and welcoming other children.
Some parents need time away to focus on their own spiritual needs and want a place where they know their children will be safe, cared for, and will learn about God’s love for them. One parent wishes here children to attend worship and Sunday School with everyone else, but needs a place with sensory items for them to become calm again.
When other parents come with their children, we are set up to interview them individually about how the church can not only meet their children’s needs, but the parents’ needs as well.
We are still working on getting the word out about our Quiet Room through a flyer and the church website. Setting up a church website is a chronic problem but we are getting closer to the solution.
The biggest blessing of all has been to watch our two toddlers grow into young boys who feel this church is their church, and are determined to participate in all parts of it.
The Rev. Janet Ruark is interim pastor at First United Presbyterian Church in Baldwin, Wis.