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One-on-one adds quality to lives

Church's outreach program for special needs families attracts the attention of other congregations.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

ODESSA -- Janet Atkinson tells a story about two elderly members of a large local church.

The congregation had observed the man and woman coming to services for 15 years. Each always came alone, never to the same service.

What a blessing it would be if they could find each other, church members thought. Then one Sunday it happened. Not only did they come to the same service, they sat right next to each other. What a happy day for them, the congregants thought.

"Do you want to know what the church members didn't know?" Atkinson asks. "These people had been married for 47 years. The reason they never came to church together was so one of them could stay home with their severely disabled child. They were finally together because their child had died."

While schools have long accepted special needs children, Atkinson says, very few churches can accommodate them.

It is a situation the Northdale woman struggled with personally and set out to change. She organized a program at her church to reach out to special needs children and their families. Now in its sixth year, the program is beginning to attract the attention of other local churches.

Atkinson's own difficulties began when her son Taylor was treated for asthma at 4 months old. After nearly dying from doses of contaminated medicine, he ended up with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair and on a breathing machine.

Atkinson recalled her difficult choice. "We had been going to a small church for years," she said. "As Taylor's condition worsened, the nursery couldn't really take care of him anymore."

So, to make sure her son was properly cared for and because she thought she could never fully take part in services, she decided it was best to stay home with her son.

After two years, Atkinson was desperate to go back to church.

"I grew up going to church and Sunday school," she said. "That's all I knew. I love God and worshiping."

But Taylor's condition had not changed, and the family had other problems related to his care.

"I lost my career, we were in debt and in danger of losing our home," Atkinson recalled. "Medicine was very expensive and therapy cost $600 per month. I knew the church would want money, too."

Putting aside their fears, Atkinson and her husband put Taylor in their van one Saturday and drove to a new church they heard about from a relative.

"I knew Van Dyke Methodist was a big church and had a Saturday evening service with a lot of singing," she said. "I thought with so many people, it would be less disruptive when Taylor cried."

Atkinson soon joined the choir and began to get more involved in church activities. She decided to try putting Taylor in the nursery.

"They were supportive," she recalled. "But the first time I left him, I came back in an hour and he was alone on the floor."

She spent the next two Sundays at home.

Then a call came from the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Matthew Hartsfield.

"He heard about our situation and asked me to come and talk to the Sunday school teachers," she said. "I told them about Taylor and how I wanted him to be able to go to Sunday school and learn about God. One teacher stood up and volunteered to take him. But with 20 kids per class, I knew that wouldn't work."

It was then that Atkinson came up with the idea for a one-on-one helper, someone who could push Taylor's wheelchair and hold his crayon. She found a family friend for the job, and the church's special needs ministry was born.

"We are blessed Janet had the passion to see this through," Hartsfield said of the program. "What's most important is what it brings to the community. It fits our mission to change the world one life at a time."

Atkinson says Hartsfield's support for the program has been unwavering as it has grown in five years to care for more than 20 children every Sunday. The church serves a similar number of adults in a once-a-month support group for parents of children with special needs.

"Parents come to the support group from all over town," Atkinson said. "The kids have their own room and sometimes siblings come and they can talk about how it is for them, having a special-needs brother or sister."

Each child who attends the Sunday program has a helper, and most are mainstreamed into the regular Sunday school classes. Atkinson says kids with more severe behavior problems meet in a self-contained room.

"They hear Bible stories, just like the other kids," she said, "but the learning is more hands on. When we talk about Noah's Ark, for example, we have miniature figures for them to hold."

The success of the program at Van Dyke United Methodist is beginning to attract attention from other churches that want to become more inclusive.

"Last week, a church in Safety Harbor contacted me about how to get started," Atkinson said.

At 41, she says she has grown into an advocate for the spiritual needs of children with developmental disabilities and their families. Last month she brought her message to a statewide developmental disabilities conference of 3,500 people in Orlando.

Atkinson says Taylor, 9, has made remarkable progress.

"He can now walk with braces and feed himself," she said. "And he can say a whole prayer. Every night he ends his bedtime prayer the same way," with a heartfelt "I love you, Jesus."

Church's outreach program for special needs families attracts the attention of other congregations.

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