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Volunteers at the Highland Church of Christ in Cordova, Tenn., welcome Asher Honshell, center, to a recent Vacation Bible School for children and adults with disabilities.
Photo provided by Hanna Thrasher

Tennessee congregation has a vision for making church ‘a more inclusive environment’

Volunteers host Vacation Bible School for people with disabilities.

Smiles were contagious at the Highland Church of Christ in Cordova, Tenn., as participants, who ranged in age from 5 to 41, experienced a Vacation Bible School tailored to their disabilities. While it wasn’t in the original plan, the period spent waiting for everyone to arrive soon turned into a karaoke party.

The idea for a VBS inclusive of people with disabilities at the church started with Hanna Thrasher, a Highland youth minister who received a degree in special education from Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Her passion for special education spilled into her youth ministry. 

“Our church has a vision for making the church a more inclusive environment for those with special needs.”

“Our church has a vision for making the church a more inclusive environment for those with special needs,” Thrasher said. 

Highland parishioners aren’t just talking about inclusion: The church is actively seeking opportunities to serve the disabled community.

In summer 2019, Thrasher and the youth group went on a mission trip to Camp Barnabas, a Christian summer camp in Purdy, Mo., that specializes in campers with disabilities. This was just one step in the Highland church’s steady march toward developing an involved and inclusive ministry.

As part of the larger initiative to become a more welcoming church family for those with disabilities, Thrasher started researching ways that other churches became more inclusive. 

Her research led her to another nearby church that hosted a VBS for people with disabilities. Due to the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth group was looking for a local ministry, and Thrasher proposed a similar VBS because “it would be a great opportunity, not only for our teenagers but our whole church as well.”

She got her wish, but teenagers weren’t the only ones involved in the three-night VBS. More than 130 volunteers banded together to make the Vacation Bible School a reality, including teenagers, adults and even people who weren’t affiliated with the Highland congregation. People — who heard about the event through Facebook and the church’s sign on the road — wanted to get involved.

“Everyone was very open and willing to just jump right in and serve this community that really is just historically very underserved in the church.”

“Everyone was very open and willing to just jump right in and serve this community that really is just historically very underserved in the church,” Thrasher said.

Volunteers attended a training session about the best practices and disability etiquette to help prepare them for the week. All participants had to preregister for the July event, which allowed the coordinators to prepare to serve each person’s needs. Sensory rooms were available for anyone who became overstimulated or might need a break.

“We wanted people to feel comfortable,” Thrasher said. “They could volunteer and feel like they were prepared.”

One-on-one fun

Each attendee had a one-on-one buddy who stayed with them throughout the evening. 

Tessa Mullinix, a high school senior in the Highland youth group, was one of those buddies. She was nervous about the week at first, but once the students arrived, those nerves disappeared.

“I loved every second of it,” she said. 

Related: VBS returns with a few changes

Mullinix enjoyed spending time with her buddy, and she learned a lot about joy during the VBS. Her buddy embraced the experience, gave out hugs and made friends. Reflecting on the week, Mullinix said it taught her to be more open and loving. 

“I feel like that’s the way that I need to live more,” Mullinix said. “I think I learned that from my buddy and from everyone else that showed up.”

Jessica Moore, a speech therapist with the Bartlett, Tenn., school district, grew up at the Highland congregation and returned to serve as a buddy during the VBS. Coming from a career where she constantly redirects behavior and seeks to help students, Moore enjoyed just being able to share in the moment with her buddy. 

Connor Dawson (left) and Jessica Moore (right)

Connor Dawson (left) and Jessica Moore (right)

“This was just a fun outlet for me to just be a buddy and not have to implement any type of strategies,” Moore said.

Moore said she loved watching her buddy, Connor Dawson, interact with his friends and enjoy the games during the week. She learned the details about his interests: how he loves Pyro’s Pizza, Night to Shine and sleeping in on his day off. While the attendees at the VBS had a fantastic time, they weren’t the only ones enjoying it. 

The church provided a hospitality room for parents and caregivers to use if they weren’t comfortable leaving the building. On the first night, the congregation gave away frozen meals. The second night, parents could get massages.

“I know the kids had such a great time, but it was awesome to see that the parents were so happy, too,” said Nicole Curlin, special needs ministry coordinator for the Highland church.

Nicole Curlin

Nicole Curlin

Curlin was instrumental in the planning for the VBS. Prior to her position with Highland, Curlin worked in the special education department at Bartlett City Schools, and she brought all of her experience to bear in the three-day VBS. During the week, she worked with participants and those who became overstimulated. 

The VBS was the first event in the Highland special needs ministry that has provided a hands-on platform for the congregation to get involved. While the VBS was a bit of a whirlwind, Curlin was encouraged by the feedback about the VBS and how it showed people the need for inclusive ministries. 

“Now that they’ve actually seen it and experienced it there, they see that this is a need,” Curlin said.

Filling a need

As they learned from the VBS, it’s not just a need in the church but in the community as well.

Eric Gentry

Eric Gentry

In October, the church will start holding quarterly Parents’ Night Out events as it continues the special needs ministry. Essentially, the events will be a three-hour evening of fun and games that will allow the parents of children with disabilities to have an evening to themselves. 

“Our church leaders are so excited about getting this ministry going,” Curlin said.

Eric Gentry, the Highland church’s preaching ministry, said of Thrasher and Curlin: “They’re really the stars of this show. They have provided a lot of the vision and leadership and organizational leadership to really make any of this happen.”

As for the larger initiative, Gentry sees it as important to the church’s mission.

“The other thing that was really gutting that we learned as leaders, was that families with special needs are disproportionately unlikely to be part of a church family,” Gentry said.  “And so, when we learn about somebody for whom Jesus and the church may be hard, we want to make it easy.”

Filed under: community outreach disability Features inclusion News special needs Top Stories Vacation Bible School

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