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Handicapable Ministry reaches out to special needs worshipers

Handicapable Ministry reaches out to special needs worshipers

Horton Townes with Janet Essley and Donny Syck
Horton Townes, left, holds a microphone for Janet Essley to sing during last year's Thanksgiving worship as Donny Syck, right, prepares for his part. Photo from St. Paul UMC.

LARGO – It’s Wednesday night Bible study at St. Paul UMC, and Todd Smyzer has just finished reading Psalm 100. The crowd of nearly 200 breaks out in enthusiastic applause.

Horton Townes takes his turn at the front and receives another “joyful noise” in response as he concludes the spiritual lesson for the week. But the group really gets amped when Townes shows video clips revealing the fun they had on a barbecue outing the weekend before.

That display of unbridled joy is one of the biggest rewards for Townes, who has been the Handicapable Ministry director at St. Paul for more than a decade. The growing ministry for adults with special needs led to Handicapable moving its worship services to a bigger fellowship hall in June, and that meant opportunities to use a big screen and other technology to enhance the experience. 

“They love seeing themselves on the big screen,” Townes said of Handicapable participants. “It makes such a powerful impact.”

Today, Handicapable participants will lead the Thanksgiving service for the whole church, and an extra 300 guests are expected to pack the hall.

Polly Drake and Scott Vreeland at Handicapable Valentine's party
Polly Drake, left, and Scott Vreeland share a dance at a Handicapable Valentine's party. Photo from St. Paul UMC.

Next year, Townes hopes the ministry will reach a much broader audience – even across the globe – through the use of live-streaming technology.

“The need out there is just unbelievable,” said Townes, noting that St. Paul UMC’s Handicapable service now draws men and women from all quadrants of Pinellas County. He sees a need to reach much farther than that to spread the message of God’s love.

“We have a purpose of being able to be the voice of God, and share with … special needs adults what salvation is about,” he said.

“We’ve been able to position ourselves to take this and share it with the world.”

St. Paul UMC’s Handicapable Ministry is open to anyone 16 or older with cognitive or physical disabilities.

Some members are more independent than others. Some live with their families. Others live with companions or in group home, and some live on their own.

Besides its spiritual lessons, the ministry offers social activities, including dances, arts and crafts, barbecues, talent shows and retreats. Over the years, ministry members have made presents for nursing home residents and have gone caroling during the holidays. The ministry also has organized trips to places as far away as Canada and Washington, D.C.

Christine and Dale Caldwell, Handicapable Talent Show
Christine and Dale Caldwell finish their dance with a flourish at the annual Handicapable Ministry Talent Show at St. Paul UMC, Largo. Photo from St. Paul UMC.

Handicapable has mushroomed since its humble beginnings in 1997, when Dr. Bill Fritz launched the ministry at the church with just seven participants.

Townes is eager to see special needs worship services grow beyond St. Paul and even outside the denomination.

He has welcomed observers from Baptist churches in neighboring Hillsborough County, and he thinks a live-streaming program will make it easier for churches contemplating a similar ministry to watch Handicapable for ideas.

Other churches with fewer resources may want to simply set up a place where people with special needs can gather to watch the live-streaming service, so those individuals can benefit from the Bible lessons, Townes said.

Sally DePalma is among ministry directors who have borrowed ideas from St. Paul. She has led Special Connections, a ministry for children and adults with special needs, at St. James UMC, Tampa, for six years. She said her program has had participants drive from as far as Oldsmar, Lakeland and Sarasota.

“People see the value in this, and they will drive for miles,” she said.

Handicapable packs old fellowship hall at St. Paul UMC
Handicapable Ministry participants pack the hall of their former meeting space at St. Paul UMC. The ministry moved to a bigger hall in June. Photo from St. Paul UMC.

The mother of an autistic child, DePalma said services also are needed for parents and siblings of individuals with special needs, who often feel unwelcome at church services because their loved one is perceived as disruptive.

But churches may be especially well-positioned to fill a gap for adults who age out of public school programs, she said.

“When school ends, they’re in for a lonely, isolated social life,” DePalma said. Church ministries can fill that gap by offering opportunities for adaptive Sunday school, group worship and outings.
Participants in the St. Paul Handicapable Ministry have been enjoying just that.

Joel Parsons, 21, of Seminole said he’s been attending the ministry for about four years.

 “You get to do a lot of activities,” he said.

His mother, Brenda Quick, also praised the ministry.

“This is a fantastic program,” she said. “Horton is just fabulous. He’s so great with all of these people. This has just been a really inspirational program for us.”

Handicapable Ministry of St. Paul UMC at Riverside Retreat
Members of the Handicapable Ministry group on an outing at Riverside Retreat in LaBelle in March 2012. Photo from St. Paul UMC.

Andrea Spenserio, 30, of Clearwater has been coming to the ministry since its early days. She said she especially enjoys the service and the friends she’s made there.

Smyzer, who read at the service, said he became a member of the Handicapable Ministry in 1999.

“I was anointed to preach the word of God,” the 40-year-old Clearwater man said. “It’s a blessing from the Lord to be able to be here.”

Wendy Johnson of Seminole brought her 22-year-old daughter, Estelle, and Andrea Larson, another special needs woman who lives with their family.

“We’re new to the ministry. We love it,” Wendy Johnson said.

 “I like singing. I love Jesus. I love being with everyone,” her daughter said.

“I liked the cake,” Larson said.

Townes said the ministry owes much of its success to volunteers, including Mary Jane Arn, 93, of Belleair Bluffs. Others include Nancy Otte, Esther Pinciaro, and winter visitors Nancy and Wayne Smith, who started a similar summertime ministry in upstate New York.

At the Wednesday night service, Townes reminded Handicapable participants of the need to support one another.

Worshipers did not seem to need the reminder. As they ambled out of the hall, the hugs and smiles shared showed they already had gotten that message.

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer from the Tampa area.