“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” ~ Matthew 10:16, NIV
I don’t want to be an alarmist, but there is great value in balancing our good intentions with wise training. While there is an enormous need for inclusion in churches and respite for parents, we do no one any favors when we are ill-equipped to serve this particular population. Opening our ministries up to law suits or bad reputation robs God of the glory He so deserves. So it’s surely worth examining how prepared we are for the wide variety of circumstances we may face in special needs ministry.
Let me share with you an anecdote. Our ministry was transitioning program leaders. Although the new leader had served under the previous one, there was no opportunity for the former leader to train the new one for the leadership position. As a result, I served alongside the new leader and was shocked at what I discovered. As excellent as that previous leader was, she had never thought to teach her team how to handle the wide variety of “What if…” situations, such as handling epileptic seizures, use of an Epi-pen or recognizing diabetic shock.
Honestly, this is too easy to have happen because a large majority of children we serve come into our programs presenting with predominant issues like Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD or Reactive Attachment Disorder. When our ministry was birthed a decade ago, the vast majority of children we served had physical challenges like CP or Down Syndrome, that could be seen with the naked eye. Children like our son, with severe hemophilia, were largely an anomaly in special needs ministries. In fact, I think we confused people. But it didn’t take long for the child care workers at church to realize that special accommodations had to be made for a toddler boy who was prone to internal bleeding episodes.
I would hazard to guess that many more of us serve individuals with “invisible disabilities” these days. But those invisibilities can run much farther and deeper than autism and ADHD. Comorbidity, or having more than one diagnosis, is extremely common as well. Here are some thoughts to improve the safety and preparedness of your program:
- INSIST that parents get intake forms completed and returned to you prior to your event or start of Sunday school. This is one of the biggest challenges with our children’s programming, but it makes all the difference. Now that parents are in the groove of this boundary, they respectfully abide by it. This gives the team time to go over forms thoroughly, making sure that we are prepared for any diagnoses. If there is an update or a time crunch, we’ll accommodate parents by speaking over the phone to make sure we have all our bases covered.
- Hold a brief training session for your volunteers on protocol to follow in various situations. Having a group of people who have never used an Epi-pen before come together to practice can be quite the team builder. It would take no more than an hour out of anyone’s time, but can increase safety and cohesiveness in your group.
- Reference great resources like the post by Friendship Circle on seizures or Web MD’s thorough primer on diabetic shock or E-How’s dramatization of an anaphylactic reaction. Contact your local American Red Cross to see what training they can provide.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the families you serve for an in-service. Diagnoses like hemophilia, Crohn’s disease or any number of circumstances may require a specific training for your team. Parents will think highly of a group that cares enough about them and their child to ask for an individualized training session on that diagnosis. And it may end up ministering powerfully to a family where no one ever took the time to get educated, so that the main caregiver can have a break.
These few extra measures will build confidence both amongst your organization’s team members and with the families that look to you for support. It may even help decrease your ministry’s insurance rates!