When Case was baptized, his parents promised to raise him to know and love Christ. They never dreamed that this promise would one day impact their entire community.
“How can we be okay with this? How can we ignore the spiritual growth of our children with special needs?”
Those thoughts flitted through Nancy DeJong’s mind in the fall of 2015 as she read her church bulletin. Hingham Reformed Church in Hingham, Wisconsin, was gearing up for another school year. Her son Case was entering sixth grade, which meant the first year of middle school youth group for his peers. But as she read these announcements, DeJong was struck with a horrible realization: Case, who has developmental and cognitive delays, wouldn’t be able to join them.
“The closest analogy would be making you sit in a foreign language class and telling you to sit, listen, and not fidget with something while what was being said and discussed was over your head,” says DeJong of the challenges facing her son. “I suddenly—for lack of better terms—realized Case had outgrown the church.”
Discouraged but determined, DeJong and her husband, Steve, immediately began researching. After all, Case participated in Special Olympics, was in a class at school for students with cognitive disabilities, and had programs at home to help him grow cognitively and physically. Surely there were resources out there for the spiritual education of children who also have special needs.
Yet their search came up short.
“How come there is nothing available to help Steve and I help [Case] meet his spiritual needs?” DeJong wondered. “How could I accept the fact that there wasn’t a place for my son in church?”
Simple: she didn’t accept it.
Today, DeJong is in the middle of her second year leading IFIT, a community-wide, church-led ministry for youth who have special needs. Meeting monthly during the school year, IFIT offers children with disabilities an opportunity for meaningful participation in a worship setting—and also gives churches the chance to have meaningful involvement in the lives of those children and their families.
“God has just done amazing things to make this happen,” says DeJong. “How can I not say yes when he is providing for us?”
All in this together
IFIT—which stands for “Faith in Training”—was a personal project when DeJong began her research, and church leaders at Hingham Reformed had committed to helping however they could. But the more she spoke with others, the more DeJong felt convicted that IFIT needed to serve the entire community, not just her own congregation. One church probably couldn’t effectively launch and sustain this ministry, but several churches working together likely could.
So DeJong and Hingham Reformed’s Sunday school superintendent Melissa TenPas asked to meet with leaders from seven other churches in the county—four RCA, two Presbyterian, and one Christian Reformed church. They hoped a few of these congregations would be willing to form a planning team.
Every church they approached said yes.
“Seeing the heads nodding, knowing we’re all in this together for the same purpose of bringing kids to know Christ, it was amazing,” says DeJong.
Toby Thomack, youth director at First Reformed Church in Oostburg, recalls feeling “heartbroken” after hearing the pitch from DeJong and TenPas. He realized that IFIT would fill a need his church hadn’t considered.
“It was inspiring to see Nancy’s passion and willingness to make this reality known, and to answer God’s call to … change that reality in partnership with our area faith community,” says Thomack. “It was so incredibly clear that God is calling our area to make a concerted effort to go and make disciples among our children with special needs.”
One by one, volunteers with specific areas of expertise, and from each of the partner churches, came forward to join the team. A graphic designer donated her time to design a logo; a professional puppeteer donated puppets. Partner churches took it upon themselves to designate offerings for IFIT. The Sheboygan Falls Kiwanis Club and the Oostburg State Bank sent unsolicited financial donations.
Thus it was with the prayers, financial support, and volunteer assistance of eight partner churches and community organizations that IFIT launched in October 2016. The planning team had long ago decided to meet on the second Monday of each month. When DeJong went to schedule the IFIT kick-off, she realized that the second Monday was October 10: her son Case’s 13th birthday.
“I do not believe it was a coincidence that the kickoff of IFIT landed on Case’s birthday,” DeJong says. “God is providing for Case … and for the children in our community and their families.”
Peace and organized chaos
Now in its second year, IFIT has settled into a groove. Held at Gibbsville Reformed Church—chosen from among the partner churches for the building’s accessibility features—the monthly gatherings are a mix of praise and puppets, of listening and crafting. Each participant is paired with both an adult mentor and a “positive peer buddy”—a youth volunteer close to the same age who is there to be a friend and to model how to do the activity. From the song choices to the activities to the snacks, everything is designed to reinforce the message of the evening.
“We know that God has a plan for them and designed them in his image,” says DeJong of the IFIT participants. “Sometimes you’ll have a parent say, ‘My kid just ran around the whole time, ugh.’ But that’s okay! They worship how they worship! That hour and a half is so full of peace and organized chaos—it’s awesome.”
Throughout its first year, IFIT consistently welcomed 12 children with special needs, 10 positive peer buddies, and 25 adults (serving in a variety of roles) each week. And DeJong has already heard stories of IFIT’s impact from many of them. One mother woke up to find her son acting out the creation story with his toys. One boy, upon seeing a donkey at a petting zoo, turned to his parents and signed the words “baby” and “Jesus.” One mother stopped DeJong in a parking lot to express gratitude, explaining that her child had just been diagnosed with autism and the family had been feeling lost.
DeJong knows that lost feeling. It’s the reason why IFIT is designed to impact not just the young participants, but their families, too.
“Researching special needs programs, we were told 80 percent of families impacted by special needs do not attend church because they do not feel welcome,” says DeJong. “We want to reach those families. We want to bring them into the IFIT ministry, minister to them, and help them find a church home where they are accepted.”
DeJong doesn’t claim to know all the answers—but she and the IFIT team have felt God’s leading every step of the way. And, more personally, she sees how IFIT has impacted her son. Case’s eyes light up when he gets to go to IFIT. His joy is evident as he shakes streamers and noisemakers during praise songs. Through IFIT and its volunteers, the baptismal promise she made to care for Case’s spiritual growth is being extended to children throughout the community.
“[At IFIT gatherings] I see these kids praising God with all their hearts,” says DeJong. “They are hearing and seeing and feeling God’s love. To see them get that—maybe for the first time—makes it all worth it.”
Have you wondered how your church can keep its baptismal promises to the children and adults in your congregation who have disabilities? Terry DeYoung, coordinator for Disability Concerns, is available to brainstorm with you. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-541-0855.