Special-Needs Vacation Bible School – How One Church Got It Right

BKAfter writing several blogs in the past about my family’s struggles with going to church because of my son’s autism, I knew right away that I had to write a blog about our experience last week. One of my son’s favorite things to do every summer is to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS). We have attended quite a few together, and usually I attend right alongside him as his personal, one-on-one aide. I walk him through the activities, pull him aside when things get too overwhelming for him, and oversee his snack time to make sure that he doesn’t get anything that will cause an allergic reaction. We have a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of work helping him and adjusting things to his level of enjoyment.

But last week, my son attended the best VBS ever – and he did it without me! This VBS was put on by Longview Heights Baptist Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Longview Heights is known for having a wonderful special-needs ministry called Four Friends. And the Vacation Bible School that we attended was specifically for people with special needs.

I have to tell you – I think that my son had the most fun he has ever had in his whole life! He wanted to go every day (he usually skips a day or two), he smiled and laughed every day on the drive to the church, and he was happier last week than I have ever seen him. And my heart, and my husband’s heart, soared as we watched him from afar: participating, being included, being loved by the volunteers. It was a joy-filled week that we are not likely to ever forget.

luke and moses

I would love it if all special-needs kids got to experience something like this! So, in the spirit of the occasion, I thought I would share with you many of the things that this church did right, from an overprotective parent’s perspective, in the hopes that this blog will get shared enough that it might help some other churches minister to special needs children (and adults!) in their communities.

 

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Here is what they did right (in no particular order):

  1. They had a coffee bar upstairs for parents. Most parents didn’t attend this, but quite a few of us did. Many parents of special-needs kids are not comfortable just dropping our kids off, especially with strangers. With my son’s outbursts, my husband and I were anxious about the VBS volunteers being able to handle his behaviors if something happened.   But we were right upstairs, and could be at our son’s side if they needed us in a couple of minutes. (Turns out, they didn’t need us.) Also, there was a game room up there, and my husband and I enjoyed spending time together playing ping-pong, air hockey, foosball, and pool, while our son was downstairs having a great time.
  2. They held VBS at night. There are probably many reasons for this, but two stand out in particular as being great reasons to do this: 1) both my husband and I could be there, and 2) there are likely more people available to volunteer to work VBS when it is held in the evening.

Which brings me to #3 . . .

  1. There were a ton of volunteers. Now, I don’t know exactly how many volunteers they had, but the way it appeared, it looked as though there were as many volunteers working the VBS as there were attendees. This made it possible to keep the group sizes small (four to six kids at the most) and have people available to assist any kids who needed one-on-one supervision.
  2. There were also volunteers to minister to the parents. This was big for us. BIG, BIG, BIG. Nervous parents, like my husband and I, need a bit of hand-holding and coaxing. They recognized this and swooped in right away to make us more comfortable about leaving our son to do VBS without us. They found us lurking around downstairs the first night, and encouraged us to join them in the coffee bar upstairs where they had drinks and snacks waiting. They sat down and talked with us, discussed our concerns, and assured us that their volunteers knew what they were doing. We talked about our son’s needs, and they assured us that there was nothing that they had not seen before.   They introduced us to other special-needs parents. They found out about the barriers we had encountered trying to attend church together as a family, and they offered to help. They found Sunday School classes for my husband and I to attend, just in case we decided to bring our son back to the church for Sunday School. They recognized that we had a very important need that was not being met, and they offered to try to meet that need.
  3. They allowed me to be the crazy mom about my son’s snacks without making me feel crazy. I always bring my son’s snacks wherever we go because of his food allergies/intolerances. This was welcomed, and no one seemed to bat an eyelash. They allowed me to be with him for snack time for the first few days, until I finally got a clue that I could hand his snacks off to them and he would be okay.
  4. They kept him from an activity that they weren’t sure was right for him. There was an activity where the kids learned to churn butter, and, because of his food issues, they made the decision to take him to do something else at that time. (Absolutely the right thing to do!)
  5. They gave him one-on-one assistance as he needed it and made sure that he participated.   Have you ever seen the little songs that kids sing and do movement/gestures to at VBS? They had a volunteer to hold my son’s hands and help him with the gestures. By the end of the week, he was even doing some of the kicking movements on his own. And during the commencement of VBS, the kids all stood at the front of the church and performed some of the songs, with volunteer assistance. (Side note: This one got to me in particular.   I have seen so many of my friends’ kids get up and perform in front of a church with children’s choirs, youth groups, etc. To see my own son perform in front of a church was such an amazing blessing. I could not have been more proud!)
  6. Their VBS is for kids and adults with special needs.   At age 12, my son is ageing out of regular VBSs. That will not happen here!

 And last, but certainly not least:

  1. They showed him unconditional love. I have seen the looks on people’s faces that are scared/intimidated of my son. I never once felt like anyone at this VBS was intimidated or scared of him. Instead, they embraced him for who he is, and they met him on his level. All I saw was love, love, love. My son felt it, too. I think that is largely why he enjoyed the experience so much. It blessed my heart and was so encouraging to my family.

These are the things that topped my list! Have you guys had any good experiences with Vacation Bible School? If so, feel free to share it in the comments as an encouragement to us all.   I hope you all have a great summer with fun activities for your kids!

Much love,

~ B.K.

For more by B.K., click here

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27 Responses to Special-Needs Vacation Bible School – How One Church Got It Right

  1. Pingback: Thinking Mom SOS | Recovery Road

  2. Janet A. Sandlin says:

    Thank God for churches that have loving and discerning hearts. Who deeply serve one of the greatest needs in communities and our church fellowships! We have an autistic granddaughter who has truly opened our eyes and heart to the special privilege of ministering to special need families. A special thank you to Longview Heights Baptist Church for this awesome ministry! Janet A. Sandlin

  3. Shelli says:

    This is such a great story. Love it when churches full fill the needs of all their members. So refreshing. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully this will build understanding and encourage other churches to take some initiative. Thanks over and over.
    God bless

  4. Dawn Sander says:

    by the date of the posting, and the comment of “last week” i am assuming that the VBS is the 1st week of June. We live in MO, but have family in Memphis and lived there ourselves for a few years. I would consider a week long vacation to Memphis just so my son with Autism could attend this VBS. any more info you could share?

  5. Lori says:

    This article was so encouraging and incredibly inspiring! As the children’s ministry assistant at our church basically in charge of our preschool and with over 15 years of experience previously working as a full-time speech pathologist, I have seen the need for ministry to families with loved ones with special needs for a long time. I’m so excited that more churches are getting on board!

  6. We are blessed that there is a church locally who functions much like this for VBS and it has been a tremendous blessing to our family as we can allow Katya to go without fear. She adores going there. I wish more churches got the need to accommodate kids and adults with special needs. I hope and pray some day our church denomination “gets it” better.

  7. Dawn says:

    I’m so happy for you and your son! I’m extremely pleased to hear that a church took the time to do this and I hope it spreads to others. This would be awesome for my daughter.

  8. tina says:

    Another great place: camp barnabas in missouri! They have specific sessions for asd people, adults and kids! 1 wk over night camo. My sin had veen wanting to go but,cant attend regular camps, day or overnight, withiut help. It was absolutely amazing!

  9. Anne H. says:

    Even though we have a grand daughter(Jessica) that has been a part of various activities in theFour Friends Ministry at Longview Heights Baptist for many years, my husband & I had never been volunteers for their VBS until this year.

    I’m sure I speak for many/all the volunteers when I say what a true blessing it was for us to be a part of F F VBS last week.

    Monica, Lisa, Alan, & Angel led us all in such a wonderful, fun-filled way that we know why your son, our Jessica, & all the other children/adult
    VBS students had an enjoyable & biblically- stimulating experience.
    Our
    Jessica really liked the music, just as
    your son did, & seemed to expect
    singing each evening at the beginning &
    end of our sessions. She is non-verbal, & loved watching others do all
    motions, & tried to join in on them herself.

    Mrs. Reba & the others in the Coffee House upstairs have been phenomenal with F F VBS parents for several years. Plus, she has the best
    lemonade in town!

    If the dates of F F VBS permits, my husband & I will definitely be a part of
    it again next year. Hope your son will
    too! ❤

  10. Beautiful post and soooo hopeful!
    So very happy that this went so well for your family.
    thankyou for sharing HOPE!

  11. Jenny Hataway says:

    It was such a joy to watch as your whole family got to enjoy VBS. I remember that same feeling when I started at LHBC. That is why I volunteer now. We have always been made to feel welcomed and loved, no matter what the situation with my son was. I want to give that same feeling back to others. Thank you for sharing your son with my tribe and our church. We loved getting to know him and look forward to seeing your whole family again!!

    • B.K. says:

      Thank you, Jenny, for helping us feel comfortable throughout the week, and for taking such good care of my son! We are so thankful for everything you did! <3

  12. Taximom5 says:

    So wonderful! This brought tears to my eyes, but they were happy tears.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on VBS! I have checked out this church’s website and been very encouraged by what Four Friends (love that name by the way!) are doing. I’ve also added it to my list of special needs-inclusive churches around the country. I coordinate the Special Needs Ministry at Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, NC and I am always encouraged when I see other churches being inclusive-minded, and thorough in the way that they include our special kids! When we officially started our ministry in 2006 (the groundwork had been laid for 30 years before), we searched the internet over and couldn’t find very many churches at all doing this type of ministry. Now, I come across stories like this all. the. time! Hence, why I’ve started keeping a list! I just couldn’t be happier that our churches are realizing the need to be ready for EVERYONE that might come through their doors, and I mean really ready, not just with words. And i’m SO glad your son (and his parents) got to enjoy VBS! It sounds like you needed it, for many reasons. Praise God!

    • B.K. says:

      Awesome! Thanks for sharing that. Such a great idea to keep a list!

    • Heather Clemmer says:

      I am always so impressed with how Church’s in the States are coming along and to think with special needs children. I would love to have your contact list Melinda or anyone else even from Canada who is doing something similar. I would love to do this in our town. Please any connections would be great.

  14. Reba King says:

    I was so blessed by meeting you and your husband last week. The change in your countenance from Monday night to Tuesday was noticeable, but by Friday night it was incredible. To see your anxiety change to joy just thrilled my heart. If LHBC is God’s place for you and your family, all 3 of you will be welcomed and loved.

    • B.K. says:

      Oh Ms. Reba, you were so instrumental in helping us to relax and enjoy the week! We are so thankful for everything that you did for us! We had such a good time. <3

  15. Monica Kirby says:

    Thank you for your lovely comments concerning our Vacation Bible School! We count it a privilege to serve you and your family!!

  16. Wanda Donnan says:

    Hi. I run a special needs ministry in my church over here in Northern Ireland and every year our Kids ministry runs a holiday week called Sonshine week. Our ministry Kingdom Kids are always an integral part and everyone – leaders, kids & parents enjoy it so much. Absolute honour to serve families in this way.

  17. Toosweet says:

    Yes! This ministry has been a huge blessing to my family as well. They certainly do have it right! We did not attend their VBS last week, but we have been a part other ministries and it’s obvious The Lord is all in it! We are attending a VBS next week for special needs at Longview Point in Hernando, MS!

  18. Antoinette says:

    Bravo!!!!! I have never felt such joy reading a blog!!! Our faith is so important to us, and our church was so welcoming when we first came on a Sunday morn. We did all the things you said we do as parents and his teacher assurd us he’d be fine. We left him and at pick-up she said he did fine, when he got upset, she walked him up & down the hallway –this was his stim coping mechanism at the time! I too, never felt so loved and we’re still there! However, they don’t have a ministry like Four Friends. I am going to research and pray on this. This is a HUGE outreach opportunity! Thanks for such a joyful post.

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