by Amy Fenton Lee
Joel Wallace, Director of Briarwood Presbyterian Church’s (Birmingham, AL) “Special Connections” Special Needs Ministry recently sat down with me to share how his church has created a tremendously successful buddy program. “Two years ago the parents of our participating children with special needs shared their desire to expand our program beyond a single self-contained classroom. Many parents felt their children were capable of taking part in the typical classrooms and they wanted them to experience more inside the general children’s ministry. I began thinking about how we could accomplish this and my mind kept coming back to using our youth.” Wallace and his wife Holly had been active in Briarwood for years. Their connections across the congregation were strong and as a result they had relationships with a handful of teenagers and their families inside the church. One particular teen was Brittany White. Wallace continues, “Holly and I knew that Brittany had a heart for children with special needs as she had worked as a special needs volunteer inside our church’s summer camp. In addition, we saw that Brittany possessed leadership ability and maturity that could make her a strategic part of our special needs program.”
In the meantime, Wallace laid the foundation for hatching his idea of launching a teen staffed special needs buddy system by gaining mindshare of Briarwood’s youth ministry team. Shortly after a conversation with Briarwood’s youth minister, Wallace and his wife approached White with the idea of developing and coordinating the teen buddy program for the special needs children’s ministry. White quickly agreed to serve in such as role and shares “Several years ago I served on a mission trip where I worked alongside a child with autism who also had a cleft pallet. I felt especially drawn to that child, as I sensed his heart was so pure. From that experience I developed the passion to help children with special needs. So when Mr. Wallace asked me to help start a buddy program for Special Connections, it was an easy decision to say ‘yes’.” Brittany is now a senior at Briarwood Christian High School (Birmingham, AL) and headed for Auburn University this fall where she hopes to serve again in a church’s special needs ministry. (Auburn/Opelika, Alabama readers, take note!)
I have observed the Special Connections buddy system in action and indeed it is one of the best programs I have run across. The enthusiasm and appreciation of Brairwood’s parents for the program is phenomenal (I was fortunate enough to see this!). Many of the pointers below are drawn from Briarwood’s Special Connections buddy system framework.
Set up a formal application process
By developing an application process involving references and interviews for each prospective teen servant, the message is conveyed that participating in the teen buddy program is both an honor and a commitment. Requiring applicants to write an essay about their own spiritual journey or the desire to work with children with special needs may deter not-so-serious candidates from applying. In the meantime, by setting up some application parameters, the message is conveyed to the teens that their service is both valued and important. Briarwood buddies know that they can list their service in the Special Connections ministry on future job and college admissions applications.
Identify and invite potential candidates
The culture of the program can be established by conferring with the youth minister and hand selecting some highly respected teens from the church. Similarly minded youth (especially younger ones who may look up to the teens who were already recruited) will likely follow suit with a desire to serve.
Set reasonable expectations and create a rotation
Provide each teen helper a job description and consider providing and requiring a commitment pledge, acknowledging the defined duties and period of service. Briarwood creates a four member team of teens and each team is assigned to a specific child with special needs. One of the four team members serves in a “lead” position, which requires them to coordinate and confirm the weekly service schedule for the teammates. The four teens rotate, helping one Sunday each per month with the same child.
Create program policies with teen service in mind
Policies and procedures for children’s ministry and/or special needs programming should be more detailed and straight forward when teens are involved. For example, policies regarding cell phone use, texting and especially picture taking are needed for this generation of camera using, social networking young adults. And teens may often not realize the serious consequences for “horse play” and how inappropriate and/or dangerous picking up children, putting them on their backs, etc may be. In addition, issues pertaining to privacy should be spelled out so that all buddies are aware of restrictions on what they may disclose to others about what they know about their assigned child (diagnosis, family issues, etc). All servants should be aware that a breach of confidentiality and the disrespect to a family’s privacy is grounds for dismissal from buddy service.
Behavior management issues related to children should be anticipated with clear instruction for what teens are expected to handle and not handle. Briarwood’s Special Connections program has a well-thought out process that removes teens from responsibility for addressing complex behavior challenges. Teens understand that they may need to guide a child in order to prevent problematic behavior and even occasionally redirect. However they are not to function in an authoritative role with their paired child. Teens are instructed to notify a designated and trained adult to handle any growing difficulties. Adults prepared to deal with behavior issues are often in the typical environments, however the special needs focused staff are always available in the Special Connections home base room. It is not uncommon for a child having a rough day to be escorted back by their buddy from a typical environment to the special connections room. Either way, the buddy remains with the child but hands off the responsibility of handling behavior challenges to the designated adults.
Communications between teen buddies and parents of children with special needs should be outlined. Adults should handle all consequential interactions with the parents and never teens. Briarwood’s teen buddies are instructed to avoid any type of difficult discussion with parents whether that relates to enforcing a church policy or addressing a child’s behavior issue. Teens are to always refer program staff (adults) to parents when such conversation needs arise. Briarwood coaches their teens to only offer positive toned comments in those times they do interact with or run into the parents of their buddy or another participating child.
Similarly, teens needing coaching or any conflict issues that arise among the buddies should be handled by adult leaders. While a teen coordinator can help tremendously with the logistics of a buddy program, managerial toned conversations requiring judgment or enforcement should be tasked to adults.
Toileting and bathroom policies should be developed and communicated to both the parents and the teen buddies. Along the same lines, policies and environments should be created so that teens are never alone with their assigned child except when transitioning from one environment to another and in plain view (such as a frequently traveled and public hallway). Briarwood keeps a Special Connections home base room open during all programming. This room is always staffed with at least one adult so that a teen and their buddy are never alone without an adult nearby.
Equip teens through training
Briarwood kicks off their teen buddy program each year with a 90 minute training class. Wallace walks the teens through a well-designed education session teaching the future buddies the general program policies and helping them to understand their role to their paired child with special needs. As a part of the training, Wallace employs creative activities to help participants appreciate the world of a child with a disability. For one exercise, teens are given an adult athletic sock and instructed to place it over their writing hand. Teens are then tasked with drawing a described picture. This assignment illustrates the extra effort sometimes required to complete an otherwise easy task for an individual with special needs. Wallace utilizes other interactive exercises to demonstrate how a limitation may or may not pose an obstacle for a person with a disability. Wallace shares “the teens usually enjoy these fun activities and in the process they leave the training with a better grasp on how they can assist (and sometimes not assist) their assigned child with special needs.”
For more on the Special Connections teen buddy training, see the “Teen Buddy Training” post on The Inclusive Church Blog at http://theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com/. For more on Briarwood Presbyterian Church’s Special Connections program, see http://www.briarwood.org/templates/System/details.asp?id=37045&PID=410924
Amy Fenton Lee administers “The Inclusive Church” blog to help churches successfully include children with special needs. For more on Amy and her writing seewww.amyfentonlee.com.