By Jono Contestabile, Student Ministry Director at Crossroads Community Church in Westminster, MD
I’ve always defaulted to the descriptor of “special needs.” The way I see it, or rather have come to see it after eight years of involvement in various special needs ministries, needs are the common denominator of all people. It just so happens that certain individuals have different, or perhaps more unique, and occasionally more demanding needs.
I hate admitting my needs. Don’t you? From needing deodorant to asking for help of any kind, it’s rarely easy. But perhaps the most difficult to swallow is the amount of grace that I require daily. For me, unfortunately, I can hide my needs. For others, their needs might be more apparent, and that might be the only difference.
I have a very close friend with special needs named Trey. Trey is a senior in high school who deeply loves all things Christmas, Spider-Man (the ones with Toby McGuire), eating ketchup on everything, playing corn hole, and spending time with his family, me, and God.
When I first met Trey, I quickly realized he was the class clown, but only if he really felt comfortable around you, otherwise he could be surprisingly shy. Over time, he opened up to me (dancing like crazy together at a special needs prom definitely helped. I would highly recommend that!) Over time, Trey became my friend. Since then, we have shared in many adventures together.
All this time I had been feeling like I was somehow teaching Trey about life, God, and what a relationship with Jesus looks like. Suddenly, God opened my eyes to the fact that Trey was actually teaching me way more than I taught him about the heart of God.
He taught me:
- What unconditional love looks like.
- What it’s like to not judge or discriminate.
- What gratitude looks like.
- What absolute joy looks like.
- What trust looks like.
While not every moment has been easy or perfect with Trey, they have all been valuable and necessary for my personal walk with Jesus.
Similarly, as our student ministry programs have started to integrate kids with special needs, it has been new and exciting, but not without its own set of challenges.
Here are five approaches that Trey has taught me and many others that I have found very helpful in approaching and leading this new endeavor of integrating students with special needs into our youth ministry:
1. It’s More Than a Diagnosis or Disability
As soon as I understood this, I began to learn more than teach. Every child with special needs is completely unique, not defined by a singular diagnosis or disability. It’s important we never put someone into a category. This has been the conviction that lead to integration rather than building a separate program, although both can be a blessing.
2. Same Gospel, Different People
You know this, but it’s easy to feel like the mission statement changes when we encounter different people. The gospel never changes, that’s great news, the question is simply how do we communicate it to different people. It requires some deeper thought but it’s actually quite fun!
3. Family is Key
It’s hard to meet the needs of any person, and can be especially challenging to meet the special needs a certain individual might have. You cannot bypass the family in this process. This is a common and important factor of student ministry in general, but with our friends with special needs it’s absolutely necessary. Realizing this, we have established a key individual to act as a liaison or bridge between families of students with special needs and our leadership in student programs. Through this, we have better understood how to address the needs of our students with special needs, whether it’s providing Goldfish during the talk, or learning how to communicate with a nonverbal student. The families have felt and expressed deep gratitude for this extra mile act.
4. Integration Requires Relationships
Certainly with their families, but we also have one-on-one leaders for our friends with special needs. In fact, most of the volunteer leaders we have doing this are their peers in middle or high school. Integration isn’t integration without relationships between all people present. Creating a safe and welcoming space is key as well as leading the way by example.
5. Be Prepared for the Spontaneous
You WILL be surprised! It’s an adventure to serve these amazing students, but you never know what to expect. They might jump up on stage with you. If if they do, give them the spotlight. It’s tough, and hopefully doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, just roll with it and give them grace. You could even incorporate them into the story you’re telling or the verse you’re reading. It might actually turn out to be the highlight of your day.
Throughout the process, always trust that God is working. It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always the default state of my heart when doing something new or different, but I trust God to do more than I can ask or imagine through integrating students with special needs into our weekly programming, and I trust the same for you!
Jono is the Student Ministry Director at Crossroads Community Church in Westminster, Maryland. He has been deeply involved in ministry vocationally or as a volunteer for 10 years and is passionate about student ministry, worship, music, special needs ministry, and food.