Church reaches out to persons, families with special needs

By Amy Forbus Editor Like many congregations, First United Methodist Church Jonesboro has long provided Christian education opportunities for all ages on Sunday mornings. But since October, its children’s ministry has offered something many churches do not: a therapeutic Sunday school classroom setting that provides learning and activities designed for persons with special needs. Abilitrees logoKnown as Abilitrees, the ministry relates to the church’s children’s department from an administrative and curriculum perspective. Its tree-themed logo and name come from the same historic oak tree on the church’s property that inspires the children’s ministry logo. Though it was founded with children in mind, it quickly grew to minister to people of all ages who have developmental challenges. Demonstrating a welcome Much of the time, persons with special needs can do well in a typical Sunday school classroom. They may be assigned a “buddy” for the hour, or have accommodations made for certain activities. But others have challenges that make it difficult to participate in a traditional Sunday school or worship setting. The common result: Families who have members with special needs tend to stay away from church entirely. Shannon May, children’s minister at First UMC Jonesboro, knew of such families through friends who work as special education teachers. She began to learn more about what types of changes would help church become a more welcoming place for those families. First UMC Jonesboro has developed a therapeutic classroom setting for its Abilitrees ministry.“We developed a therapeutic Sunday school classroom with a lot more gross motor activities and appropriate things for special needs,” she said. “We wanted to be sure there was an environment that was safe and beneficial for all children.” The dedicated classroom has a foam floor, a therapeutic swing and tactile lessons. A nursing student from Arkansas State University is on hand in case a participant has any physical problems during the hour—for example, some participants have gastrostomy tubes, and others are prone to seizures, so the presence of a medically trained professional provides an extra level of comfort to the parent or full-time caregiver. “We just want to give parents that one hour to worship and not worry about their children,” May said. Adults with special needs have options at other churches in the area, but often they rely on buddy-system-style integration, which doesn’t work for everyone. In this city of 70,000 people, First UMC is the only church May is aware of that offers this level of accommodation for persons of any age with special needs. Adults who live at the David E. Puryear Center in Jonesboro spend time worshiping through music as part of Abilitrees, a ministry of First UMC Jonesboro that focuses on providing opportunities for worship and Christian fellowship for persons of all ages and developmental levels.Judy Steineggar, recreation director with the David E. Puryear Center, says that the approach taken by Abilitrees makes a big difference for the center’s adult clients. “Abilitrees has given our clients a place to worship where they feel comfortable going,” she said. “They are also excited to go. I couldn’t believe the first month we went. I got there to pick them up for church and they were ready. They were excited to go to church.” Custom approach Working with special education teachers who give of their time to help, May has developed a curriculum that meets the specific needs of the eight or so persons who currently participate. The younger the person, the more individualized attention they get at Abilitrees. For adults, Abilitrees includes a music- and movement-oriented worship time as part of the Sunday school hour. “They play instruments, they can sway or dance to the music, and it’s a short, maybe 10-minute worship,” May says. Each week’s lesson centers on one simple concept or phrase, such as “Jesus wants to be my friend” or “Jesus loves me forever.” After the worship time, participants break into small groups, with craft projects or other activities appropriate for their various physical and developmental levels. The younger the participant, the more individualized attention he or she receives at Abilitrees.While they clearly have found a way to address a need in their community, May expects the ministry to grow and adapt as they continue to learn more about persons of all ages who can benefit from Abilitrees. But being in learning mode doesn’t mean they’re taking things slowly: They already are making plans for a developmentally appropriate Vacation Bible School curriculum. People have asked May exactly what types of special needs First UMC Jonesboro can accommodate. So far, the answer has been, “Well, we don’t really know. Let’s just try.” “It’s definitely a work in progress,” she said. “We are so blessed. The people of FUMC are really behind it.” While not every church can provide a dedicated space like the one First UMC Jonesboro has developed, May believes every church can learn more and do some things to become more welcoming. She will be leading a workshop based on her experiences with Abilitrees at Beyond, an upcoming Arkansas Conference Children’s Ministry retreat at Camp Tanako Jan. 31 through Feb. 1, 2014. Visit for details or to register. To learn more about Abilitrees, contact May at 870-932-7479 or