A few years ago, a woman changed my life by her selfless act of kindness. She saw me in distress and didn’t say, “I’ll pray for you.” She didn’t wait around for someone else to do something. She took action!
Many of you probably remember the series I wrote about the importance of special needs ministry. It remains to be the most popular blog series that I’ve ever written. That entire series was based upon a God ordained encounter with Mrs. Gale Dollar.
Mrs. Gale has been working in ministry all of her life. For many years, she and her husband, Marion, worked in the children’s, puppet, and bus ministries at a church in Charleston, SC. Unfortunately, things changed in 2006. Her beloved father passed away. Around the same time, discord in her church home of many years caused the church to split. “We found ourselves in a very uncertain situation,” said Mrs. Gale.
The Dollars, along with Mrs. Gale’s mother, sister and brother-in-law, decided to take a trip to Sumter, SC to visit family. Mrs. Gale’s brother, Rev. Al Sims, was a pastor there at Bethesda Church of God. They all desired to fellowship with Rev. Sims and his church family to start the process of healing. “The people were so kind and loving,” said Mrs. Gale. She and her family continued to commute to Sumter on a weekly basis. They began working in the children’s ministry and enjoyed it. Weeks and months soon turned into years. But in 2013, The Dollars were led into a more specific area of children’s ministry at Bethesda Church of God.
HOW THE MINISTRY BEGAN
Mrs. Gale was on Facebook one day and read an article about a family that was told they weren’t welcome at a particular church because of their special needs child. It deeply troubled her. “I just couldn’t believe that any church would tell anyone that,” said Mrs. Gale.
Around the same time, I had a mini-meltdown at church because children’s church was cancelled. That meant that my son with autism would have to come with me into the sanctuary, a place that often sent my son into sensory overload. Mrs. Gale was working at the children’s church check-in desk that day and saw my despair. She kindly offered to watch my son so that I could take part in the Sunday morning service. I wrote about that story here.
The two coinciding situations really bothered Mrs. Gale. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. There may be churches out there that couldn’t meet the need, but our church didn’t need to fall into that category. Our church should be able to meet any need,” she said. After careful thought and consideration, Mrs. Gale developed a plan and met with Rev. Sims to discuss her idea. He was very supportive and eagerly gave his blessing. Wonderfully Made Special Needs Ministry was born.
Mrs. Gale had no formal training or previous experience with special needs children. She did a lot of research on her own in preparation for the ministry. “I read everything I could find,” she said. Her favorite book on the topic was, Leading A Special Needs Ministry, by Amy Fenton Lee. Mrs. Gale took several online courses, both free and courses she had to pay for. She and her husband also attended the Orange Conference in Atlanta, GA, that provided them with a wealth of information and training.
THE RECRUITING PROCESS
Advertisements for the special needs ministry were placed in the church bulletin and on the church website. The Dollars prayed for volunteers and once they were identified, background checks were conducted. The team consisted of teachers in the local school system, compassionate laypersons and teenagers serving as peer buddies. The Dollars also had help from Mrs. Gale’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law.
When it was time to start enrolling students, parents were required to fill out a form that gave specific information about the child. This was very important for any child that may have health conditions requiring assistance during a service. It also included information on hospital preferences and contact persons in case of an emergency. Information about the child’s likes, dislikes, and personality were also included on the form.
There wasn’t a specific budget when Wonderfully Made began, so materials were used from children’s church. “You can begin with a very low budget,” said Mrs. Gale. Pinterest was helpful for classroom ideas and decorations. Sensory materials were bought from the Dollar Store. Church members donated money and items for the ministry, such as videos and weighted blankets.
The ministry started with my son being the only student in August 2013. The Dollars faithfully taught him as if they had a room full of students. Mrs. Gale didn’t get discouraged though. “Don’t get overwhelmed or disappointed by numbers,” she would often remind herself.
My son wasn’t the only student for long. Word started to spread about Wonderfully Made and the classes began to grow. Mrs. Gale and her volunteers eventually had to split the group up by functioning levels. After just 2.5 years, the Special Needs Ministry has now grown to 13 students ranging in age from 2 – 22. Some of their diagnoses include: Autism, Mitochondrial Disease, and other developmental delays.
Wonderfully Made Special Needs Ministry has a variety of options available, such as:
- Sunday School
- Sunday Morning Service
- Respite Care offered quarterly
- Family Gatherings offered quarterly
- Vacation Bible School offered annually
- Inclusion assistance during church-wide events, such as the Fall Festival, Easter Egg Hunts, etc.
Vacation Bible School and Respite care are not just limited to members of Bethesda Church of God. Families from outside of the ministry are also welcome to participate! In addition, the siblings of those that are in the special needs ministry are welcome to participate in VBS and Respite Care as well so that the parents can receive a true break. “I know these families go through so much stress. Anything we can do to help the parents alleviate stress,” said Mrs. Gale.
Respite care usually occurs on a Saturday. Parents drop their children off at the church for about 4 hours. Fun and engaging activities are planned for the children. Lunch is also provided according to the child’s dietary needs.
The mission of Wonderfully Made Special Needs Ministry doesn’t solely focus on those with special needs. “I like to individually meet with the families too,” said Mrs. Gale. Quarterly family gatherings are designed to help all of the families connect with each other. The gatherings are usually held at the church or at a local restaurant.
The families in this group understand the importance of supporting each other. As a matter of fact, when one of the parents in the special needs ministry started undergoing treatment for cancer, the group rallied around her. “The special needs group formulated a plan to provide her family meals and transportation to her appointments out of town,” said Mrs. Gale. “That just warmed my heart so much. Now she’s cancer free!”
A TYPICAL SUNDAY
The Dollars rise early for their Sunday morning commute. Upon arrival, they set up the rooms with tents, decorations, and materials for the day’s lesson.
The Sunday School covers a brief bible lesson. They also show a bible video and allow the students to interact with their classmates.
During the Sunday Morning Service, the students are split off into two groups. Activities include a lesson, music, craft and a snack. For those that need more help, individual lessons are often given using an iPad. Tents are available for children to have quiet time. Adjustments are made based upon how the children are feeling that day.
Teaching children with special needs can be challenging, but Mrs. Gale has some compelling words of wisdom to share with those working in special needs ministries. “At times you may feel like what you’re doing and saying is not heard or processed. One day, God spoke to me and said that my job was to put the lesson out there to the best of my ability for their learning. God’s job was to do all the rest,“ she explains.
THE IMPACT OF SPECIAL NEEDS MINISTRY
The Dollars are passionate about special needs ministry. By having a special needs ministry, Mrs. Gale feels like they are helping individuals in their walk with Christ. “Everyone is important. Some of these families never get to be ministered to together because of the conditions of their children. Parents would have to swap times coming to church if we didn’t have the special needs program. But now, families can be ministered to and then in turn, they can minister to others. More are added to the body of Christ. I don’t think the body of Christ is truly whole unless we have these unique individuals,” says Mrs. Gale.
Prayer has been a big part of the special needs ministry. A prayer group led by one of the women at the church prays over the Special Needs Ministry on a regular basis. After almost three years, Mrs. Gale is thankful that the special needs ministry is still thriving and active. “I feel like the church has embraced the ministry. We have wonderful, very dedicated workers. It has not only grown, but it’s very active. I’m proud of it,” she says.
Mrs. Gale has big dreams ahead for Wonderfully Made Special Needs Ministry. “My vision is to one day have our own wing of the church, ministering to people with all types of disabilities, of all ages, while showing them the love of Jesus,” she said.
May God bless her with the desires of her heart!