Volunteering With Special Needs: Teaching the Served to Serve
When most people think of special needs kids and serving, they naturally assume that the recipients of the service are the special needs kids themselves. As history is proof, that is generally the case.
People volunteer at Special Olympics. They are a “buddy” to a child at a school or on a sports league geared towards special needs kids. They volunteer at group homes or exceptional education centers doing crafts, performing shows, or playing games with the kids. They give money to charitable organizations and participate in walks for a spectrum of disabilities.
What about the special needs kids performing acts of service though? I have been at my position as Exceptional Needs Children’s Ministry Coordinator at our church now for just over a year.
Our church is very mission-minded. We support orphanages abroad, missionaries locally and globally, and even send teams to other states and countries to serve people remotely. Most importantly, we partake in a wide array of service projects and mission opportunities right in our community. At least, most of us do.
Individually and as a family, we have gone on mission trips ourselves. For many of these trips, either my husband or I have had to stay behind with our son because he was simply not able to serve in the capacity expected of each team member. Besides, the uncertainty of schedules, lack of routine, and often adverse housing conditions would make for a very emotionally tumultuous trip for him…and everyone else on the trip as well!
Then there is the simple truth that families with children who have special needs often feel like their lives are spent in constant service already. We as parents of these children live on the mission field! Often, our world inadvertently revolves around our children, and through no fault of their own.
We have three other kids who often took a backseat to speech therapy, occupational therapy, educational testing, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services in our home, psychiatrist and neurologist appointments, just to name a few. The list is exhaustive as our lives unwittingly revolve around the special needs of my youngest son. For example, some of the best-laid family fun plans often took a detour at the ninth hour because of an unforeseen meltdown of epic proportions.
Still, as a ministry coordinator, I struggled with the fact that our Exceptional Student Education (ESE) children were not expected to participate in our outreaches simply because of their differing abilities. Are missions and service projects only for the physically and developmentally/mentally abled? If so, who determines where that line is drawn?
This was truly an “aha” moment for me in the capacity to which I served these kids. So I began to research. I searched Google and Pinterest, everywhere for missions for special needs kids to partake in, using every combination of those words and phrases to bring to light all possibilities. Know what I found? NOTHING! Instead, it was all about missions FOR special needs kids.
I was determined to change that with my kids in our program. I started with a meeting with our volunteers to brainstorm ideas for service projects they believed our kids could do. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:
- Make greeting cards for soldiers overseas, to welcome new visitors to your church, get well cards for people sick or just after surgery, congratulations cards for new babies, and we miss you cards for visitors or members that have not been to church in a while. They can even make greeting cards to encourage some of the widows and let them know they are loved and prayers are being said. This can be as simple as folding a piece of cardstock into a card, using Publisher to make a card to sign, or simply buying a box of greeting cards to sign and add some of their artwork.
- Santa for Seniors program where you adopt a senior who has no other family at a local nursing facility and provide them with small gifts for Christmas. The kids could contribute some of their own money to the project and even help wrap the gifts. Families who want to meet at the facility to help deliver the gifts.
- Operation Christmas Child where the kids fill a shoebox with Christmas gifts for a child overseas. Again, they can give some of their own money and/or go shopping with parents to help pick the items out. Samaritan’s Purse gives you the option of choosing to track the package along its journey so you can show the kids on a map where it ended up. The kids can also write a note to include in their shoebox and might even receive a note back from the recipient! What a great way to show the impact of their gift!
- Stand supervised at the doors to the student or worship center just after church lets out to hand scripture cards to people leaving and tell them to have a great week.
- Assemble homeless brown paper bags with socks, bottled water, a toothbrush, granola bars, and a scripture card the kids sign or draw on.
- Goodie bags for a local women’s shelter or children’s hospital.
- Collect new/used children’s book for local foster facilities.
- Check with our local care help organization to see if they have a practical and tangible need that the kids can help meet.
- Start a small portable garden of succulents near the classroom that the kids can take turns watering weekly. Then the kids can re-pot some of the plants they grow to be delivered to our widows at Christmastime or on their birthdays, to people recovering from an illness, etc…
- Help assemble Easter baskets for migrant worker children locally.
- Correspond with a sponsored child in another country.
- Make knotted fleece blankets for local children’s shelters or hospitals.
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Did you notice something similar about all of these service opportunities? These missions can be done by ANYONE, regardless of ability! The bottom line? ANYONE can serve. They just need to be a somebody, willing to become a nobody, to serve anybody.
Adjustments to these service projects may have to be made depending on the abilities of your children. As a parent or volunteer, you may have to tie the knots on the fleece blankets, do hand-over-hand to help a child sign their name to a greeting card, let go of the fact that the gift they wrapped for the senior at the nursing home is wrinkled, uses an entire roll of tape, and doesn’t even cover the entire package. It’s okay!
The real purpose of these projects for our kids is that they understand that, regardless of their limitations or abilities, they are capable of serving others without expecting anything in return. In the process, they will also learn that it is not all about them and that the world revolves around serving and loving others selflessly.
Everyone can understand this basic idea of serving and giving. The entire time we work on a project, we tell our kids about the people we are serving, how and why those people will be blessed, how what they are doing is making a difference in the lives of others. We created a mission bulletin board display in our hallway to keep track of the projects we complete and so that the kids have a constant visual reminder of their impact on our world.
On a final note, children with special needs are still children and, like any other of their peers, they can become “me-focused” and fall into the entitled-to mindset any of us (even adults) typically can in our “have it your way” culture. That’s why serving others is so important. Help your children become involved, no matter what their abilities.
This article was featured in Issue 89 – Solutions for Today and Tomorrow with ASD