The special needs ministry that changed our whole family
It's hard to put into words how much of a mess we were as we walked into NewSpring for the first time.
It was the first week in Florence for my husband and I, having moved from Minnesota for my husband’s new job. We knew no one.
I was dealing with the idea we'd be raising two kids with special needs far away from my family and friends, and I was feeling totally crazy.
Our oldest, Abby, has significant physical and mental disabilities. She is 16 but functions around 2 years of age. She’s non-verbal — basically like a big toddler who cannot express her needs.
We had two “typical” girls after Abby, but our newest addition, 3-month-old Millie, had just spent her first two months of life in the NICU after she suffered a brain bleed at 3 days old. The doctors told us she'd have some degree of cerebral palsy.
We never imagined they’d be able to take Abby the first week.
Abby listens attentively as a volunteer teaches the week's lesson about Jesus on Abby’s level.
A New Hope
I wanted to get back in the car and drive away.
Truth be told, I was pretty worn out just taking care of all Abby’s needs, an infant who required extra care, two sad girls and my own shade of mourning. I was used to full-time help with Abby. It wasn’t my finest moment.
But my husband and I believe church is important. Our desperation to make friends, our desire to find our place in this new town, and our hope of a disability ministry, pushed us forward.
We had come to try Spring Zone, but we never imagined they’d be able to take Abby, let alone our new baby, the first week.
We tried to warn the volunteers and give them an out if they needed a week or two to recruit suitable helpers. But because they seemed undaunted, we checked Abby and Millie (who was still pretty fragile with potential for seizures) into Spring Zone.
Honestly, I was beyond desperate to get away for even just an hour. In my sadness and exhaustion, I would have considered leaving her with the gal at the front door if she had offered!
Being able to talk about a sermon together really helped us as parents and as a couple.
Allison and Andy Moore moved to Florence from Minnesota and had never experienced a dedicated special needs ministry like Spring Zone. They are pictured with daughters Annabelle, who is holding Millie, Mary Alice, and Abby.
A New Experience
Then my husband and I held hands and walked into the service together. Just the two of us.
For the first time in nearly a decade, we didn’t have to decide whose turn it was to entertain Abby or take her out of the service if needed. We were able to worship together and listen to a whole message without distraction.
I hadn’t realized how much we missed in our typical unfocused state, or how much being able to talk about a sermon together really helped us as parents and as a couple.
Being able to process through things and challenge each other really wasn’t commonplace for us, and we were missing out.
Three years later, we still haven’t tried other churches because we’d miss “our church.”
Today, Abby walks into church dancing and singing.
Allison looks on proudly as Abby engages in sensory activity in the Spring Zone environment.
A Place For Abby
Abby can walk, but we often kept her in a stroller because she couldn’t walk far and often needed to be contained.
She can be really sweet, but her efforts to get attention were often misinterpreted as mean or aggressive — digging her nails into anyone until they bled or pulling hair.
Today, Abby walks into church dancing and singing (in her way) like a movie star, high-fiving and reaching out to shake hands with anyone who will look her way. She is known by all the security team and most staff. She greets them by leaning in for a hug to connect with “her people.”
She no longer requires a wheelchair to contain her because she is content in her special room. She likes her space in Spring Zone with her toys, but she has grown to tolerate and even enjoy some time in large group as well.
She has her story time for as long as she’ll tolerate it and gets a coloring sheet, just like her three sisters in KidSpring. (Millie graduated out of SpringZone because our little miracle no longer has any evidence of her early trauma.)
Abby had a sweet former teacher keep her during services at a previous church, but a whole ministry just for kids like her — that not only accommodated Abby, but that we could invite all our friends to — was beyond our expectations.
Everyone has value because everyone is made in the image of God.
Andy and Allison soothe Abby as she prepares to leave Spring Zone.
Loving and Welcoming Everyone
Having a church with a program to actually treat her as worthy of being taught, regardless of how much she appears to take in, challenged the way we viewed disability in the church.
If we think about it for a moment, church should be the most welcoming place. But instead, we’ve heard such sad stories from our friends who quit going because it became another place to advocate rather than a safe haven.
I’m aware of studies showing the special needs community accounts for more than 12 percent of the population.
If we consider the family members who won’t be in church because of the care challenges, the special needs community might be one of the largest unchurched people groups in the world. If church doesn’t include people with disabilities, we’re definitely missing the boat.
NewSpring doesn’t just talk about loving and welcoming everyone but actually strives to do it.
I love that Spring Zone is an essential part of NewSpring’s mission to teach all children about Jesus on their level and provide a safe, warm environment, regardless of ability.
Every week, the love that Abby receives, along with many children like her, is a powerful message that, in the body of Christ, everyone has value because everyone is made in the image of God, including those with a disability.