“Our kids love to come to church.”
Alyss Ruster, FPC Special Needs Ministry Coordinator, does not have a child of her own in the program she oversees. But she speaks with the passion of someone who has lots of children in the program. That probably stems from her obvious affection for the children she works with each week.
“We started with three families, and we have 15 now. We are building a community for these families,” Alyss says. “We help them work through things.”
The Special Needs Ministry began with the Mini Miracles program which meets on Sunday mornings to allow parents and siblings of children with special needs to attend worship services confident that their children are being cared for by trained professionals and volunteers. The children are in a safe environment where their sensory needs are considered.
“We have education and speech-trained volunteers who know what to do and who challenge our kids throughout the year,” Alyss says.
“For a child with social deficits, it’s good to be in a new environment and to work on social skills,” she continues.
Mini Miracles now also has camps during the summer to continue to help both the children and the families.
“Studies show that all children lose a portion of what they learn during the summer, but special needs children tend to lose even more,” she explains. “In our camps, we work with each child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan – a plan developed to ensure a child with a disability received specialized instruction and related services) goals to help them retain the knowledge gained in each school year.”
Buddy Break is a national respite program conducted in partnership with Nathaniel’s Hope, and FPC participates in Buddy Break as well. One Saturday a month, through Buddy Break, we provide caregivers a respite time and special needs individuals a time to gather together for social interaction.
“We follow Nathaniel’s Hope guidelines, but we have the flexibility to make this program our own,” Alyss says. “It is faith-based, and all of our volunteers are trained. Currently, our students are ages four to 16, and we work on a one-to-one ratio.”
If siblings of the VIPs (individuals with disabilities) want to stay at Buddy Break and play, they are welcomed. This gives caregivers a time of true respite. Currently, we have 12 VIPs and approximately 20 volunteers, not all of whom are FPC members.
Last year was our first year to host Night to Shine, a prom for special needs individuals sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. We are hosting our second Night to Shine prom on Feb. 10.
As the Special Needs Ministry continues to expand, we are adding an adult Wednesday night Bible study – Shine On – on March 1 for those individuals aged 16 and older.
“I’d like to see us grow into having a youth group and to having Bible study so that we can feed into that population,” Alyss says.
“Everyone wants something they can belong to,” Alyss says. “It is my goal for us to build that community.”
If you would like to become involved in the Special Needs program, whether by your financial support or as a volunteer, contact Alyss Ruster.
One way everyone can support this program is to share the news with your friends and co-workers who might have a child with a special need or disability. Welcome them to our church and assure them that we provide a place where their children can feel safe and secure.