Though trying to “fit in” can be challenging for those with special needs, seamless blending in is precisely what they crave. That is why three churches—Mission Church; First Presbyterian Houston; and Willow Creek Community Church—have each found ways to introduce normalcy and inclusion into the lives of special needs individuals in their communities.
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington is one of the church’s eight campuses, which total 25,000 in average weekend attendance. The church is so devoted to special needs individuals that they hold three sensory-friendly services a week in a dedicated space with state-of-the-art facilities for individuals with disabilities age 4 through adult. In addition, five years ago, the campus started staging an annual production for the community featuring junior high and high school special needs actors.
“We don’t focus on what our special needs kids can’t do but rather what they can do,” says Pat Cimo, director of the Special Friends Ministry. “We create an environment so that they may work to their greatest potential.”
They do this by pairing a special needs actor with a peer mentor. Both the actor and mentor attend all rehearsals so that the mentors can subtly help their actors with forgotten lines or missed blocking and gently assist should the performers get agitated or nervous.
“Special needs students often don’t have a lot of social interaction with others, so to form this type of relationship where they feel included is huge for them,” says Paul Von Tobel, special friends pastor. Cimo notes the astounding transformation over a five-month period.
“Some actors come in the first day of rehearsal wearing a headset because they can’t stand the noise and are unable to focus for more than five seconds,” he explains. “So to see them walking across the stage several months later, saying lines, fully participating, having fun—it brings tears to my eyes.”
There’s also a certain degree of magic that happens behind the curtain as peer mentors bring their special needs students into their circle of friends. For instance, when Talia Kotel, a special needs actor, was invited to a school dance, her peer mentor gathered her group of friends and went to Talia’s house to style her hair and apply her makeup for the shindig.
“That’s a big deal because the thing we used to always hear from parents who had children with disabilities was that their child had no one to invite to their birthday parties, no one to sit with at church,” says Cimo. “This play creates lifelong friendships.”
Adds Von Tobel, “This experience gives student mentors a heart for people with disabilities.”
The ultimate goal of all of these ministries is for every person with a disability to feel like an integral part of the body of Christ.
“These are ‘kingdom come to Earth’ sorts of moments,” says Hickerson. “And when we experience them, the gap between heaven and Earth gets really thin.”
WILLOW CREEK COMMUNITY CHURCH
South Barrington, Illinois