Palma Ceia's iMatter program offers unconditional love



The intention four years ago was to serve folks with special needs, but it turned into a ministry that involves everyone in an inclusive environment. That’s the short version of how Palma Ceia United Methodist Church in Tampa created the iMatter program, which includes worship, Capernaum Club—a young life ministry at the church—Engage and an on-site Sensory Room.

The Sensory Room, opened in September 2014, is said to offer a unique sense of security to those whose constant caregiving leaves little time or opportunity for spiritual renewal.

Member Eileen Hafer had the idea to launch a program welcoming special needs individuals and their families by offering them space and time to worship and friends to engage them in fun-filled activities.

The Sensory Room is now considered a special piece of real estate at the church. The room opened in September 2014, offering a space with special lighting, soft music, touchable objects and calming images. Four years later, it’s still going strong.

“This is a vibrant ministry which is always growing,” said Hafer, executive director of special needs programs at the 600-member congregation. “We don’t think of it as a program for people with disabilities. It is a multi-ability community that embraces everyone. We celebrate various abilities in all of us.”

Hafer’s extensive experience in special education has played a big role in the ministry. Entire families show up to participate, some with those they provide care for and some to lead various activities that include physical and spiritual exercise.

“We did not foresee the family aspect of this program,” Hafer said.

iMatter is part of the church, but this ministry is non-denominational. Not only are people welcomed to take advantage of the program, they are also asked to serve in the life of the church, as evidenced by a 26-year-old autistic man who is the cross bearer for an 11 a.m. worship service.

Hafer reported that at the last Special Needs Sunday in October, all three services ran over their scheduled time with an overflowing of emotion and celebration.

Another piece of the ministry is a date night, held several times a year, which offers a break for caregivers and a fun-time Friday night at the church for special needs children and young adults, ages 4 to 22. Peer buddies, who provide friend support, stage the activities for the group. Engage—the name of the ministry—started with seven participants and averages about 72 now. At a ratio of about 60 percent supporters and 40 percent special needs guests, there’s clearly a common ground for those who attend.

Likewise, peer buddies provide fellowship and care during the 9:40 Sunday contemporary worship service, so parents and caregivers can attend. “Jesus wants us to treat everyone with love, so we eliminate the obstacles. People feel welcomed. It’s rare that someone who visits doesn’t return,” Hafer added.

Palma Ceia also hosts Capernaum, which brings young people ages 14 to 22 who have mental and physical disabilities together to have fun and participate in activities that build self-esteem. They meet once a month at the church.

The Sensory Room offers a unique sense of security to those whose constant caregiving leaves little time or opportunity for spiritual renewal.

Hafer said that this past Christmas, a couple came in for the Christmas Eve service with their 4-year-old daughter who has special needs. The couple had not attended worship in months, but are said to hope for a miracle at Christmas each year. This year, after introducing her to the Sensory Room, she was happy to stay there while they went to the service, and then she didn’t want to leave, Hafer said.

Hafer and others at the iMatter ministry would likely agree: It’s the kind of story that often proves that Jesus’ unconditional love includes everyone.

--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery.

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