Supporting kids with special needs
Take a peek into the kindergarten Sunday school room at St. Paul, and you’ll likely see a kid named Leo Voyna. He’s a super-smart, super-funny kid who happens to use a tablet to verbally communicate (quite clearly, we might add). He is on the autism spectrum.
With Leo, you will see either Michael Shepherd or Will Behrens, two pretty exceptional high school students who are with Leo during Sunday school. They help support Leo as he learns that God loves him dearly.
This partnership is something that Leo’s mom, Teri Voyna, along with fellow special needs parent Rachael Suddarth and Kendra Thompson, pastor of children and families, are hoping to expand to include additional kids with special needs. The three have been meeting for the past year.
“Michael and Will have been amazing,” Teri said. “It was kind of selfish to start with, I just wanted my kid to go to Sunday school.”
St. Paul’s children’s ministry is looking for people interested in being paired up with a child with special needs for Sunday school. Volunteers will be trained – a training is set for Sunday, Nov. 17, at 12:30 p.m. in Fellowship Hall. The hope is that this new initiative can give as many kids as possible the opportunity to be a part of Sunday school. Show interest at stpaulqc.org/signups, or connect with Kendra Thompson, email@example.com.
Rachael, who is an associate professor of speech pathology at St. Ambrose, is hopeful this initiative will help ensure that all families can come and be a part of a community who loves God. Churches can be some of the least accessible places for people with disabilities, with specific expectations for behaviors, she said. “They’ve had such heartbreaking experiences with church that they can’t bring themselves to come back.”
Rachael will help lead the training on Nov. 17. She’ll talk about what communication looks like – it’s not just about talking. “If a kid is acting in a way that is unexpected, there is probably a reason behind that. All behavior is communication.”
The most important quality for a volunteer in this role is flexibility, Rachael said. Another important trait is the ability to problem solve. She hopes that at some point, St. Paul will be able to serve as a role model for other congregations.
Teri noted that conversations between volunteers and parents will be a key part of the initiative, to talk about what works well for their children and what doesn’t. She noted that the understanding of how to be in a classroom setting is shifting, from one way to many ways. For example, Leo does better if he is doing something else while listening to a story.
“There’s nothing worse than a child feeling like they don’t have a place, or a parent who doesn’t feel they can bring their kid,” Teri said. “We should all be able to go and have a place at church.”