In February, Trinity UMC, Gainesville, celebrated the opening of a new playground that is accessible to children with and without disabilities. The congregation has invited the community – not just Trinity churchgoers – to use it.
About 150 miles north, another church, Good Samaritan UMC, Tallahassee, is reaching out to children with special needs in the community through an inclusive arts program. Leaders of both ministries say personal experience has driven home the importance of churches becoming welcoming places for everyone.
At Trinity, the playground is one more step in an evolving mission to find ways to welcome and include people in church activities, says Rev. Dan Johnson, the church’s senior pastor. The congregation has a Friendship Disabilities Ministry Group and annually observes Disability Sunday services.
"That's been an important part of our mission: to make sure we're accessible in every way, for play and for the emotional and spiritual," Johnson says.
About two years ago, church members began collecting donations for the $150,000 needed to build the playground. Among its special features are a spinning bowl that promotes sensory stimulation for children with autism and a gondola-style swing wide enough for wheelchairs.
A special wood chip surface makes it easy for wheelchairs to roll from one play area to another, and children can wheel right up to picnic tables specially built to accommodate them.
Johnson has a personal connection to the challenges confronting people with disabilities.
His adult daughter sustained life-threatening injuries in a car accident nearly 14 years ago. She survived but has vision and balance challenges and uses a wheelchair.
Johnson understands the frustrations of parents who bring their disabled children to a typical playground. Other children would head for the swings, “but how about kids who come in wheelchairs who want to swing?” he says.
Artist Jenn Garrett – his daughter’s friend –designed the playground and served on the building committee.
“I just wish every day (that) churches would do this,” Johnson says. “This is a way to communicate what we think of the faith of Jesus. It's not an isolated or compartmentalized access. The church wants to be open in all ways to people.”
Amanda “Mandi” Broadfoot, arts and communications executive director at Good Samaritan UMC, also knows from personal experience how often children with special needs feel isolated and left out.
Her 8-year-old son, Billy, has autism.
School officials said he was “severely affected” and didn’t offer much encouragement for his future, Broadfoot recalls. He did not speak until age 4.
Finding a church that welcomed her son was a challenge. Often, Broadfoot says, there were complaints that he was too disruptive and would have to be separated from Sunday school classmates.
Then, by happenstance, the family came to Good Samaritan UMC.
“I was really skittish,” Broadfoot says. “But they just opened their arms. … I was so happy.”
Her son began participating in the church’s arts and music program.
“We found out he had an amazing voice,” Broadfoot says. “He is an example of someone people didn’t know what his potential was. They wouldn’t have suspected what he’d be today.”
Her son sings in the show choir, performs in musicals and has served as an acolyte during church services.
"He has slowly evolved and enjoys showing off his God-given talent," Broadfoot says. "He is a beacon of light."
Broadfoot quit an advertising job to join the staff about two years ago and focus her attention on Good Sam Arts ministry, which includes dance, arts, music and theater. Curriculum choices are made with all children in mind, including those who have trouble moving or vocalizing in their lessons.
Last year, more than 300 children enrolled in the church's Good Sam Arts classes, which are open to the community. Children of all abilities are welcome, Broadfoot says.
The congregation has made a special effort to get that message out.
"Let's over-communicate with people and make sure they understand," Broadfoot says. "If you're a parent and concerned about the challenges, come and talk with us about it."
Every situation is taken on a case-by-case basis, she says.
One 10-year-old girl with autism had a beautiful voice and was cast as Belle in "Beauty and the Beast."
But she was uncomfortable with dancing. "It stressed her out to do that," Broadfoot says.
The solution was easy. She played Belle, seated at a table, as other children, dressed in costumes danced around her while singing "Be Our Guest."
She is now in the show choir and is taking piano lessons at home.
"We celebrate every milestone, whatever it may be," Broadfoot says.
It is important for churches to reach out to children and their families no matter what the challenges, she says.
“They need to know that kids can go to church and their families can go to church,” Broadfoot says. “They need that more, sometimes, than the typical kid.”
-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.