Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine
by Nancy Gruben
I started working with my GEMS buddy when he was in kindergarten. At that time we didn’t have any kind of official ministry for kids with special needs here at WBC. I became a buddy to my friend simply because I had heard of autism while attending a class session as part of my college course work. I guess I was enough of an “expert” after only three hours of class!
My buddy and I have now been together for eight years, and I have loved watching him grow up and become a more confident and independent young man. I am so thankful that Wheaton Bible Church has created a program that trains volunteers and provides special kids like my buddy with a safe place where they can learn about God. I know that my buddy’s parents feel comfortable leaving him with me each week and that they are better able to learn about God themselves when they do not have to worry about their son. GEMS is a wonderful ministry. I hope it continues to grow and reach out to more special children and their parents.
Each week at our church, you can find children and students with special needs who are growing closer to Jesus. They’re being supported in this process through GEMS—a ministry that pairs a child with special needs and an adult buddy for a unique, one-on-one connecting and learning experience. A love-filled, child-focused ministry, GEMS itself is an “extraordinary miracle” for the kids, families, and adult volunteers involved.
If Jesus was on the staff of a local church today, it’s quite possible a ministry like GEMS would be among His first initiatives. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” He instructs His disciples in Matthew 19:14. This account is repeated in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, indicating its importance to those familiar with Jesus’ teachings.
As parents of a child with special needs soon realize, a structured program in which “one size fits most” can quickly become a hindrance to their child’s learning, growth, and feeling of acceptance. That’s why GEMS is dedicated to creating environments tailored to each child’s individual needs, while also striving to provide respite for parents. This is a huge support for the twenty-five-plus kids and families GEMS serves each week, especially since the stress of everyday life is often magnified in families that include children with special needs.
“Many of our families wouldn’t even be able to come to church without the program,” explains Heidi Seabloom, coordinator of the GEMS program, “or only one parent could attend a service at a time.”
Ed and Yolanda Luciano’s son, Gavin, attends GEMS, and his younger sister, Tess, has faced serious health issues—including cancer. Yolanda explains that GEMS was critical in her family’s decision to attend WBC: “GEMS allows my husband and me to worship with others and focus on God’s Word instead of on two kids who have a difficult time sitting with adults. There is no way we could go as a family if GEMS did not exist.” Yolanda also appreciates the fact that GEMS is structured in a way that assures her Gavin is learning, too: “This is not just a babysitting service as I have seen with some churches,” she explains. “I am so appreciative of both Heidi and the volunteers who help. It puts me at ease to know that even on Gavin’s ‘off’ days, I can trust them to work with him in a way that is not insulting and keeps him safe.”
Beth Ciabattari concurs that Wheaton Bible Church provides a place where all four of her children—including four-year-old Hayden, who is part of the GEMS program—can learn and grow. “We went to another church for a while, but Hayden [who has autism] had tantrums in a regular classroom. Then a new neighbor told me about the GEMS program. Now Hayden actually asks to go to Sunday school and seems to love the classroom and teachers. Our family is going through a rough patch at the moment, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to be able to bring all my children to church and have a safe place for each of them to learn about God with loving people to teach them. Without GEMS that wouldn’t be possible, and I can’t thank God enough for bringing us here.”
Parents and siblings of children with special needs face unique pressures. The divorce rate is higher among parents of kids with special needs, and siblings can sometimes feel left out, which can cause additional family issues. That’s why the GEMS program goes beyond the Sunday morning classroom in offering support.
In addition to the teaching available in self-contained classrooms and in “inclusion” classes (which allow some of the children to attend regular Sunday school with the support of their one-on-one buddies), adult volunteers are also available to GEMS children at Pioneer Club on Wednesday evening. In addition, GEMS offers a Sibling Support Group, family-fun events, respite nights for parents once a month (with babysitting for the GEMS child and his or her siblings), and beginning this fall, a youth group for GEMS middle school and high school students.
Jim and Shay White credit GEMS with helping their son, David, to thrive and more fully enjoy being a part of the church. “In addition to GEMS and Pioneer Club, we appreciate the special accommodations that have been made for Winter Blowout, the Good Friday family event, and other church activities our family has enjoyed together.”
They are also grateful for the spiritual development they’ve seen in their son. “When David expressed his desire to be baptized, that was able to happen with just our family in attendance. As we look toward the future, our prayer is that there will be even more for him at church. It is a place where he feels comfortable and connected. We want him to be used and feel that he is a vital part of the church body. David has a very deep understanding of God’s work in his life, and we believe he will have much to add to the church body.”
Heidi and the adult team of volunteers at GEMS share that desire. “One of my dreams,” she says, “is to see our GEMS children not just being served but also serving the Lord in a variety of capacities—and that whatever the ‘special need,’ each child and family will feel welcomed and valued and will find a place to use their unique God-given abilities to serve within the larger body of the church.”
One of the ways GEMS children are already serving the church is through the joy and fulfillment they provide for those who work with them. Bob Klemmer began volunteering two years ago after responding to a need for more male buddies.
“The initial hurdle was that I thought none of my talents or spiritual gifts matched being a GEMS buddy. I now realize God wasn’t asking me to serve only because of what I could do for others but also because He had new areas for me to learn and grow. This year I’m paired up with a wonderful young boy who has numerous challenges. We play, sing, and listen to Bible stories every week. His smiles are pure joy that erase all the cares of the world. His excitement is contagious and brightens the day. We are each other’s buddies, which I’m sure was God’s plan all along.”
“The more I get engaged, the more God refreshes my own life.”
Nita Norkus agrees that she’s also gained a lot personally since she first filled out the volunteer interest card to work with GEMS: “The more I get engaged, the more God refreshes my own life. It feels good to draw out a smile or hear an insight. Studying the lessons in order to teach has given me discipline to do more personal study on my own. It’s even allowed me to make new friends. Every day I’m involved, I learn something new about God, the kids, and myself. Filling out that card was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. I have never regretted it.”
As an audiologist, volunteer Lynn Wood knows that the challenges of parenting children with special needs can be overwhelming. That’s why she decided to serve with GEMS, to help our church demonstrate God’s love to those in need. But she echoes the experience of many other GEMS buddies and volunteers when she says that she receives far more than she gives.
“These ‘specially-abled’ children and their families radiate Jesus and inspire me throughout the week.”
This kind of inspiration is clear when talking with parents like Fred and Karen Petelle. Their son Liam, born in October 2004, has already outlived doctors’ original predictions, with great joy and growth coming along the way. For the Petelles, like other GEMS parents, life is sometimes exhausting and difficult, but they also “realize how blessed we have been.”
“It’s been wonderful,” they explain, “seeing how much Liam loves his brother, Lars, and cheers him on even though he always has to just watch. And seeing Lars develop tolerance for people with differences has been wonderful as well. Hearing Liam sing ‘America the Beautiful’ in his precious, angelic voice, or hearing him say, ‘I love you’ is priceless. Most important, Liam has taught us that people with special needs are truly special. They are thinking, breathing, feeling human beings that are images of Christ. They bring heaven a little closer to us and remind us that God created each of us equally, that even though it looks different, we are all made in the image of God.”
‘I love you,’ is priceless
All those working in GEMS agree. These children are indeed God’s extraordinary miracles.
GEMS MINISTRY OPENINGS!
The GEMS ministry currently has openings for both kids with special needs and adult buddies to serve them. Increasing the number of volunteers will allow GEMS to more effectively serve the children who now attend, as well as to be a light to the special-needs community in our area—a huge, almost untapped “mission on our doorstep.”
Contact Heidi Seabloom at email@example.com.