Taking on a Giant
A small New Jersey congregation is making a big difference for families whose children have disabilities
Who says a small church can’t make a critical difference?
That’s what happened when Reformed Church in Kinnelon, New Jersey, stopped looking at its size and started looking instead at a giant that threatens families of children with disabilities with fatigue, burnout, and isolation every day: the need for specialized childcare.
The church, with 25 to 35 weekly worshipers, spent two years looking at the challenges of these families—challenges that touch not only their congregation, but the community, the world, and the heart of a God who loves children and has compassion for the weary and heavy-laden.
“For a church so small, we have an unusual number of families who have children with special needs,” says pastor Beverly Sullivant. “Two years ago, a new consistory member, Karen Juncosa, began to dream of offering a free babysitting service for parents of children with disabilities. She had personal experience, having raised a child with Prader-Willi Syndrome.” Juncosa also teaches special needs children in the Kinnelon school district, and volunteers as the church’s advocate for the RCA’s Disability Concerns ministry.
But the idea needed to germinate. “It took a while for consistory and congregation to understand the meaning of such an idea—and I believed the congregation had to understand it like Karen did before we moved on it,” says Sullivant.
As the idea gained traction, Sullivant, who had also walked a son through childhood disabilities, began to do some research locally and through the denomination to see if a model of such ministry existed. When nothing turned up, church members continued to talk, dream, and eventually make plans of their own.
“Our desire was to be able to hire from within our community, someone trained to work with various disabilities, and to be able to pay them a decent wage,” she says, “so we began looking for grant money.”
The Classis of Passaic Valley’s Mission Commission listened to their idea, asked for a formal application, and gifted $750 for start-up. From idea to reality took two years, but in March 2015, a teacher with experience in multiple disabilities as well as sign language was hired, and “Precious Playtime” opened its doors. The ministry started with once-a-month Saturday evening childcare, including play time, crafts, dinner, and music.
Since its opening, six families have used the service, and one has started attending worship at Reformed Church in Kinnelon. The congregation is enthusiastic about extending the days and hours as word gets out, and Sullivant is delighted as they take ownership of the new ministry when talking about it around the community and in church. As a result, Precious Playtime has received snacks, crafts and games—and even community volunteers.
In July, the church was recognized by Governor Chris Christie for the Precious Playtime program, which he called “an excellent example of the positive impact of spiritual outreach.”
In the future, Sullivant hopes to write a curriculum for other churches, and she’d also like to offer a faith-based support group to parents using Lorna Bradley’s book, Special Needs Parenting: From Coping to Thriving. One way Precious Playtime hopes to expand is by offering summer programs for kids with autism spectrum disorders who can feel anxious as they leave the order of school for a new rhythm.
“Our congregation has begun to understand that this is who we are; it was more God’s work than ours because we didn’t have to open our doors to this ministry—it found us,” says Sullivant. “What we are doing is following God in the work—which means less work for us, and more joy and passion. It’s a delight to be the hands and heart and voice of what God has been intending for this place and time.”