By Sam Pierce

Featured Contributor

Rebekah Harpool served as an intern for the children’s ministry at St. James UMC in Little Rock last summer.

“She had a heart for special needs and I saw it as a sign and a time for us to jump into launching the program,” said Sean Dunbar, the children’s ministry coordinator for St. James. “Rebekah was helpful in getting our environment ready and by August, she helped launch a fundraiser to help us fund this ministry.

“… We are just now really starting to see the traction of our work.”

The Gathering, a Special Needs Ministry mission, officially began on Jan. 26, with the first of its six services – meeting the last Sunday of each month.

“Our Special Needs Ministry’s mission is to provide a culture of belonging, dignity, and purpose to everyone who has cognitive, behavioral, or developmental challenges,” Dunbar said.

“We launched our first special needs service to make it more open and comfortable for those that may have sensory or developmental issues that would make worship hard,” he said. “We have created an environment with bean bags, blankets and sensory boxes, and we are really trying to be intentional to how we cater to this community and allow them to experience the full love of God as well.”

Unfortunately, Harpool was hit and killed by a car on Jan. 8 on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “She didn’t get to see the first service,” Dunbar said. “But she leaves a tremendous legacy in helping us get it off the ground.”

St. James UMC launched its special needs program this past summer on the back of its already established Buddy Program.

“Ideally, the Buddy Program is for any special needs child – whether it is a physical or mental disorder – who needs help participating in Sunday School or worship,” Dunbar said. “We want to provide somebody that can walk alongside that person and help them be comfortable and participate in an everyday church environment.”

Dunbar has been the children’s minister at St. James since 2013 and he said the church has always done the Buddy Program. But it wasn’t formal until this summer.

“Now we have a training program for those who want to participate,” he said. “They learn the best practices and awareness and we also have spots for parents or other caregivers.

“They can register to receive a buddy for whatever church event they need.”

“We want to provide somebody that can walk alongside that person and help them be comfortable and participate in an everyday church environment.”

Sometimes a buddy can be used to help calm the children who have trouble sitting still and want to leave the environment. “They can partner that child with a teen or a young adult, and they would walk with that child around the church until they are comfortable to come back to the group,” Dunbar said.

Currently, the program doesn’t have any kids participating in the Buddy Program. He said he wants more people to come to church and be comfortable and know that there is support for them.

“We have used it primarily in the children’s department, but we would like to offer a buddy for anyone that needs one, whether it is a tween, a high school kid or even an older adult who needs someone to help them experience what the church has to offer,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar said, “There are a lot of blind spots in churches.”

“Things we say with our language, or our body language, has caused a lot of families to be burned at a reals church,” Dunbar said. “We wanted to create a place where this underserved population is included.”

Sadie Wohlfahrt is the children’s minister at First United Methodist Church in Bentonville and the northwest district coordinator for the ARUMC Council on Children’s Ministries. She has been serving as a mentor-type to Dunbar during the launch of the special needs ministry.

Wohlfahrt said Dunbar attended one of her recent workshops and is “taking a good amount of what he learned and then conferencing with me about the specifics as he goes along.”

“I’m here to help support them on their journey,” said Wohlfahrt, who taught special education for 10 years before becoming involved in a church. She has been the children’s minister at FUMC Bentonville for five years.

“One demographic that needs the support of the church are parents of special needs children,” Wohlfahrt said. “We have a lot of work to do, but I think Sean is off to a great start. I think it is really good that he is even aware of the program, and wants to tackle it, because most churches don’t.”

Dunbar said they have also added special needs components to the church’s outreach events including the fall carnival and a Sensory Santa at Christmas. He said the pastors at the church have been super supportive as well.

“During the six or seven years that I have been here, we have had a handful of children that have special needs,” Dunbar said. “It is a super underserved community. The rigors that it takes to participate as a special needs person, just getting out of the house can be difficult and deters participation.”

For more information, contact Dunbar at childdir@stjameslr.org.