In a large room at Fellowship Reformed Church in Muskegon, Michigan, a man beams as he finds a plastic ball hidden within a toy. The smile on Julie Essenburg’s face mirrors his as she hides the ball in a new place.
Nearby, another man sits quietly, tap-tap-tapping away on a laptop. Across the room, visitors and their caregivers exchange friendly banter while playing with a tambourine and drawing with colored pencils. A radio in the corner plays Beach Boys songs, and occasionally a few heads bob to the music.
Pastor Mike Van Kampen pops through the door, a basketball in hand. “Anybody want to shoot some hoops?” he asks, and before the words have even left his mouth, two men jump out of their seats like popcorn. On their way to the church gymnasium, one of the men makes a detour to the adult-sized tricycle in the hallway, eager to show off his biking skills.
With her playmate gone for the moment, Essenburg scans the room, checking to see if her friends need anything. She can spare a few minutes to talk, she says, but it’s clear she’d rather be a part of the action: “This is my home away from home.” She grins.
A year ago, Essenburg’s friends—adults with developmental disabilities living in Muskegon-area group homes—didn’t have much to do during the day. They used to attend daily activity programs run by local service agency HealthWest (formerly known as Muskegon County Community Mental Health), where they were able to play and interact with residents of other homes. But when HealthWest’s funding was cut, these activity centers closed. The caregivers in their homes continued to offer services like meals, transportation, and medication—but without regular activities and socialization, life for these adults began to look very different.
“It didn’t take too long for it to be evident that once those day programs had closed, sitting at home and no longer participating in a ‘normal’ life started to have adverse effects [on residents],” says Angie Puterbaugh, a support coordinator at HealthWest and a deacon at Fellowship. “We had an increase in depression, decrease in morale, increase in behavior issues, increase in health issues. People were gaining weight, not sleeping well, sleeping too much.
“We were created to be in community, and being disabled for whatever reason doesn’t change that for you.”
Around the same time as these cuts, unbeknownst to Puterbaugh, Essenburg began to feel a tug. Already active in Fellowship’s Encompass Ministries, which offers Sunday school and other accommodations for people with disabilities, she was distressed to hear of the activity center cuts. While attending a mental health conference in a neighboring county, she learned that the facility hosting the conference offered a drop-in activity center for adults who have disabilities. A light bulb went on.
[Fellowship] can do that, Essenburg remembers thinking. We can do that at least one day a week. We can’t let these folks sit at home all the time … we gotta do something.
Church leaders, recognizing the need, didn’t have to be asked twice.
“Anytime I see members of our church community who are trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a way that makes sense to them—something that fits their life—to me, that’s just a beautiful thing,” says Van Kampen. “Julie and I had this conversation about, how do we share the gospel in some sort of meaningful way with someone who has physical or mental disabilities? How do we take down that barrier? That’s what this ministry came out of.”
Essenburg, a recently retired school psychologist and special educator, made quick work of setting up a drop-in activity center at Fellowship and offered it free to residents of the area group homes. Working in tandem with Puterbaugh to learn what would be helpful, they set up an open-house style program where these residents and their caregivers can play games, work on puzzles or crafts, do DVD-led exercises, and see their friends from other homes.
Essenburg and a team of volunteers now open the church doors to their friends every Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. She keeps in regular contact with the homes, making an effort to get to know not only the residents’ needs, but the needs of the agencies as well. And she makes sure to spread the word about the other disability ministries at Fellowship, too.
This spirit of community and generosity isn’t extended only to the adults who have disabilities. The volunteers who cheerily greet visitors at the drop-in center every week know that this is a chance to demonstrate God’s love to their friends’ caregivers as well.
“If you think about it from a ministry perspective, you have no idea what this may be doing for people who are unchurched, because they’re coming to church—this is a church building,” says Puterbaugh. “They’re not getting a sermon, but they’re still coming to a church building, so now [they’re] not afraid to approach the building because it’s familiar. And they’re … making some connection to ‘the church’ without even realizing it. So are we ministering to not only our [friends] but also the people that care for them? Absolutely—what a bonus!”
Although the drop-in activity center is not yet a year old, Essenburg has grand plans and big goals for the future. She’d like to introduce special events like movie nights at the church and game nights at her friends’ homes—anything she can do to keep building that connection between the two entities. And thinking even bigger, she wants to branch out to other churches in the area. Her hope is that other places of worship may be inspired to start something similar on other weekdays, so that eventually their friends are able to socialize throughout the week.
“I just love working with these people,” says Essenburg, her voice breaking. “How can you not see God when they come in? They play games and put puzzles together, where in the past, years ago, they would have been left in a room with a closed door. These are God’s children. We all have a purpose. We all have gifts. ... So this program means a lot to me.”
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