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Church makes services more comfortable for families with challenges

TAMPA — Of all the good works that churches do — day in and day out, at home and in other countries — there is one area where many fall short:

Reaching out to those with special needs.

According a recent Barna Group study, nearly 10 million families and caregivers lack the support they need from their local church.

You can't fault the church entirely for this. It takes money, knowledge, resources, commitment, space and education to deal with the wide spectrum of disabilities out there.

But, occasionally, a church gets lucky. An angel like Eileen Hafer comes along.

Hafer is a member of Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. With 17 years experience as an educator – one of those spent as an Exceptional Student Education specialist at Mabry Elementary School – she has a passion for this population. She understands that every person with mental or physical disabilities has individual needs and challenges; she knows how parents must make dramatic life changes as caregivers.

So when she left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom, Hafer wanted to devote her time to a project that involved her faith and her professional background.

Lucky for her, she belongs to a church that encourages its members to do just that.

“I went to my pastor with the idea, and he said, 'Go for it.' He gave me the blessing I needed to get started,” she says of the Rev. Bruce Toms.

That blessing, however, didn't come with a budget.

Hafer had to be resourceful, creative and enthusiastic in order to sell her idea to fellow members of the 1,200-member congregation. A ministry of this scope — and, in particular, one that was stepping into uncharted territory for the church — required more than one angel.

Hafer's one-man band grew to a passionate pack. If you met this woman, you would understand. Her can-do personality rubs off on people. One minute you're listening to her pitch; the next minute, you're signed up and serving on the board of directors.

Last summer, Hafer's diligence paid off. Palma Ceia UMC launched its “iMatter” ministry, which focuses on enriching individuals with special needs and their families. Basically, that means developing a church where everyone is welcome and all obstacles are removed that might keep people out of the mainstream mix.

Part of that, Hafer says, is changing the mindset of the congregation.

“I don't use the word 'volunteer.' That word makes you think of charity,” she says. “It's about building relationships and making friendships.”

The other part is offering something tangible not found elsewhere, at least in the local area.

On Sept. 8, the church celebrated “Special Needs Sunday” with the opening of its Sensory Room, a calming environment for children who have limited communication, behavioral issues or sensory deficits.

What makes it different? The room is equipped with special lighting and touchable objects to develop the senses. Soft music is played on the sound system. A swinging chair hangs from the ceiling. Calming images are hung on the wall. Every child or young adult in the room is paired with a “buddy partner.”

Its purpose is twofold: The program, which includes a short Sunday school lesson, gives participants a place to feel comfortable, stimulated and safe, and it gives caregivers a break to attend the 9:40 a.m. worship service in the main sanctuary.

The room was made possible by Sam Tringali, a Plant High School student whose Boy Scout troop meets at the church. He was looking for a project to earn his Eagle Scout rank. Once Hafer learned through a friend that he was struggling to come up with an idea, “the light bulb went off in my head,” she says.

Though Tringali didn't know a thing about developing a space dedicated to special-needs users, Hafer's enthusiasm took hold. He got on the Internet and did his research. Then, with his father's help, he devoted each weekend for two months to designing and constructing the ambitious undertaking.

Using his social-media contacts, he raised money for materials he wasn't able to salvage or have donated. Final price tag: Less than $1,000. Not bad, since sensory rooms can cost upward of $20,000.

“Knowing it's going to make a difference in people's lives is what makes this project so special,” he says. “It was such a learning experience for me, beyond the construction.”

Tish West is one of those parents of a special-needs child who is on the receiving end of the Sensory Room's outreach.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Caroline, has cerebral palsy and a rare neurological disorder that triggers seizures. As important as it is for West and her husband to attend church, going as a couple is nearly impossible.

“Taking her into a sanctuary for a worship service, with all the music and the distractions, is just too stimulating for her. We've tried, but it's brought on seizures in the past,” she says.

When she heard about the Sensory Room, West decided to give it a try, even though she was a member of a different congregation. Her first concern was Caroline. Though she has a cheerful nature, her physical limitations require constant care. Would she be comfortable in this setting?

Turns out, Caroline loves it.

“She's in an environment where she feels safe and secure, and she's made some new friends,” West says. “The worship service would not be a good experience for my husband and me if we had to be concerned about her. We know she's in good hands, and we can devote some worry-free time to our faith life.”

Ditto for Debbie Meininger, whose 8-year-old son, David, has autism. Because he's so active, she can't put him in a regular Sunday school class.

“He's very disruptive,” Meininger says of her son. “He can run fast and act quick, which means you can't turn your head for even a few seconds. It's not fair to the other kids in the class to have the teacher just focused on him.”

But in the Sensory Room, David has a “buddy partner” to work alongside him. And for the first time, Meininger can worship at peace in the sanctuary. Like the Wests, this isn't their home church — her husband still serves on the vestry at St. Mary's Episcopal — but she's very grateful to be able to attend a Christian service.

“I know the whole congregation supports and gets behind this program, but it took someone like Eileen to make it happen,” Meininger says. “We are so, so grateful for this.”

There's more. Palma Ceia UMC is also hosting Capernaum, a YoungLife ministry program designed to give young people with mental and physical disabilities (ages 14 to 22) a chance to experience some fun, challenge their limits and build their self-esteem. The group meets the third Saturday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. at the church.

And for an outreach that extends beyond the church, iMatter Ministry sponsors a “Date Night” for parents or caregivers several times a year to give the adults a much-needed break. Called “Engage,” it's open to all people in the community from 6 to 9 p.m. on specific Friday nights (May 10, Aug. 8 and Nov. 14).

Special-needs children and young adults, ages 4 to 22, and their siblings can be dropped off at the church, with “peer buddies” providing an evening of group activities.

“It's a win-win for everyone,” Hafer says.

Hafer and her fellow iMatter participants know what they are doing matters. They see it in the smiles of the attendees; they see it in the faces of the caregivers. When something isn't working, they re-invent their approach and find a different way.

“There's no question, this experience is filling out hearts. We're the ones getting the most out of it,” Hafer says. “It's a joy and privilege to be part of this journey.”

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