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New church class targets children with special needs

October 25, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

A chance encounter several years ago in Bowie, Md., started Jerry Jones on a mission to introduce more children with special needs to God and his teachings.

Jones, who moved to Hagerstown in 2001 and attends Bethel Assembly of God on East Wilson Boulevard, brought what he learned in Bowie with him, vowing to offer the same opportunities in Washington County.

A class - called "Sonshine" Friends - was started on Sept. 28. The class is held for two hours beginning at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday. So far, only one child has signed up to attend, but Jones said he is optimistic.

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Jones said he has learned that most families with special-needs children don't go to church. Often unable to leave the children with untrained sitters, the family gives up on church.

"A young man I once mentored in Bowie had become the father of a child with autism and he said his own church didn't want the boy in their Sunday school," Jones said. "Once the family had even been asked to leave a church service."

Children with autism, mental retardation and cerebral palsy can pose special problems for inexperienced Sunday school teachers. But Jones said that's no reason to deprive them of a relationship with God.

"When I was first trying to get kids in Bowie, I talked with a person in an agency who asked me if I was crazy," Jones said. "She told me that no one could teach those children about God."

Within the first year, there were 11 children in the class.

"Help came out of the woodwork," Jones said. "My junior high Sunday school class volunteered to buddy with the children, one-on-one."

The children put on skits, dressed up as Mary and Joseph at Christmas and held Easter programs.

"They can and do learn about God," Jones said.

From that first class grew a mothers' night out, then a parent support group and a sibling support group, Jones said.

Parents interested in the class at Bethel can call Jones at 301-797-0212.

"We then visit the home, meet the parents and the child and assess the need," Jones said.

Each child is different, so the needs are different. Some children don't want to be touched. Others are frightened by loud noises. Some wear diapers. Teachers must be experienced in all those areas, Jones said.

After the home visit, the child and parent visit the classroom with the teacher and meet their buddy, Jones said.

Teachers are trained in three sessions. So far, five volunteers at Bethel Assembly are waiting for children to attend their classes.

"We could handle about six or so right now," Jones said. "Our ages are from 5 to 11, but we are flexible both younger and older than that."

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