In 2017, the congregation at Celebration United Methodist Church in Gainesville entered into a 40-day season of prayer with one simple objective.
It was, Pastor Melissa Pisco said, “to discover where God may be leading us.”
The Holy Spirit was at work as people shared the promptings they had received. As they discussed their passions and unique gifts, they discovered that God had shaped their faith community with a desire for healing and wellness.
Those twin drives led the church to focus on spiritual, emotional and physical healing, and that led to a ministry perhaps few, if any of them, had imagined. They now offer regular services and programs geared toward children with special needs.
“We have a commitment to develop a safe community for people of all abilities to worship, serve, play and grow as disciples,” Pisco said. “We added training for our Sunday School teachers to work with children of different abilities. We added the respite nights.
“We have a fund set up to help support families that may have financial challenges and need help with medicines, food, travel expenses for doctor's appointments. We have a licensed mental health care provider that works with families so all people have access to mental health care.”
Each Sunday evening, Pisco and her staff hold a worship service and a potluck dinner specifically geared towards children with special needs.
Many of the children who attend the service are on the autism spectrum and are prone to overstimulation, so the service is designed to accommodate them.
There is no loud music, and they make use of visual timers, emotion flashcards and other communication tools to ensure the children have everything they need to experience the service to the fullest.
They write the group prayer together, so the kids feel active involvement with the service and get to pray for the things that are most important to them.
“We all understand each other very well. We get each other,” Pisco said. “There are no funny looks or glares, just empathy and compassion.”
The children are allowed to speak out during the service if they want clarification on something that was said or shown.
“They are free to move around and be themselves,” said Pisco. “We celebrate the children and encourage them to be who they are. “We try to teach the lesson with more than just words.”
That includes the use of visual arts and crafts to help the children better understand the day’s lesson. A potluck meal follows the service, brought by both staff and attendees. It is a time of bonding and fellowship.
Every teacher and staff member who is directly involved in the ministry had training from the Center for Autism Related Disabilities. Their expertise helps ensure the safety and comfort of the children who attend the services.
But this amazing worship isn’t the only thing that Celebration UMC does for special needs children and their families. They also create “sensory sacks,” which contain items that are helpful to autistic children.
The sensory sacks contain sound-reduction headsets, visual representation cards for non-verbal children, fidget toys and stress balls.
They also contain fidget lap blankets, which are handmade by members of the First UMC of Bonita Springs. These blankets have fidget toys built into them, such as clickers and zippers, which offer healthy sources of stimulation for the children.
Celebration UMC also hosts events for the children, including an annual Easter egg hunt. The eggs contain organic snacks to accommodate dietary restrictions. They place the items in areas that are accessible to children in wheelchairs.
Trunk or Treat is another exciting Halloween event. Children move from car to car in the church parking lot, picking out treats. Each car is adorned with spooky décor and creates a safe, wheelchair-accessible environment for children to enjoy the holiday.
Parents need a break, too. That’s the idea behind Respite Night for parents of special needs children. Parents are given a gift card to a local restaurant, and trained teachers and staff members provide childcare.
Looking toward the future of the ministry, Celebration UMC is working on acquiring funding for a community park that is completely wheelchair accessible. The church has the plans drawn up for the park, but still needs to reach its funding goal.
Moreover, Celebration works directly with about 20 families of special needs children. There are more families on the waiting list for their programs; however they are limited to a one to one teacher-to-student ratio. They are always looking for people with proper training to lend a helping hand.
If you would like to get involved with the ministry so that more families can experience God’s love through Celebration UMC or would like to donate toward the community park, contact Pastor Pisco directly at 352-367-8005.
—Jordan Chronister is a freelance writer based in Tampa.