Where inclusion in church is done well, particularly where it is done well within children’s and youth work, there are often unsung heroes working in the background to care for and support those with additional needs and disabilities.
These folk get alongside children and young people who need additional support and provide them with the help, encouragement, confidence and care they need to cope, thrive and benefit from their time at church. One-to-one help can be transforming for a child or young person, reducing the uncertainty and fear of the unknown… what is happening now, what is expected of me, what is happening next. Having a caring friend alongside to help and to explain what is happening, to answer questions and to assist with the range of needs that a child or young person might have, revolutionises church for them.
When I’m running training for churches and I start to talk about one-to-one help, I know that usually I’m going to be met with the same comments, so I pre-empt them… I ask for a show of hands for anyone whose children’s or youth work has more volunteers than they need… that they have to turn volunteers away as they have so many already! This always gets a laugh, accompanied by no hands going up at all. I then ask how many of them struggle to get enough help, who scrape by with the small number of volunteers that they have… A forest of hands is then visible…
So, when I then start talking about one-to-one help, the scene has already been set. I introduce the idea of one-to-one help but with one important clarification… this isn’t necessarily about getting a bunch more children’s or youth workers along to help.
When thinking about one-to-one help, we sometimes have to fish in a different pond… While some people that make great one-to-one helpers can also be great children’s/youth workers, the main responsibility of a one-to-one helper isn’t to run children’s work but to get alongside one child/young person and support them.
You don’t necessarily need someone who can lead songs, organise games, tell dramatic stories or plan a teaching programme. What is needed is someone with a heart to help a particular child or young person, someone with the pastoral skills to see when they are struggling and to help them, someone who can interpret what is happening and what is expected in a way that the child or young person can understand. They can be observant for when a child or young person might be starting to struggle, and have strategies in place to help when this happens, preventing it developing into a meltdown. They can be a great connection for parents/carers, debriefing at the end of the session about how the child/young person has got on, what they have enjoyed, what they found harder.
They can be people like the three one-to-one helpers that care for James… On a once-a-month rota they sit with him, help him to do the things that the others are doing, explain things to him, but most of all they show him Jesus’ love through the ways that they love him. He’s had Alison, Ian and Rich to help him for years, knows each of them really well, and is happy to spend time with them. And they love seeing him, look forward to their time with him, and it is a mutually enjoyable and beneficial time that they spend together.
I sometimes get asked how James copes with having a different helper each week, as routine is really important to him. He has known each of his helpers for many years, so manages the changes well, and having a pool of one-to-one helpers available means that when holidays or other time conflicts arise, there is the opportunity to swap people around to ensure James still has support.
One-to-one helpers can come from lots of different ‘ponds’… the grandparent generation can be great at this, so can other young people who can be ‘buddies’ for those that need them. Everyone benefits, and it is always great to see these relationships grow. Churches that provide this help generally reap the rewards of seeing the children/young people involved thriving, seeing parents/carers able to be spiritually fed in church themselves (vitally important, see my previous blog post: ‘Additional Needs Families And A Truly Supportive Church) and seeing the work of the church become more inclusive.
So let’s go fishing, let’s fish in a different pond for the one-to-one helpers that can make a transforming impact on the way children and young people with additional needs and disabilities can engage with, and be an active part of, a church where they truly belong. And where these heroes lovingly care for children and young people already, let’s recognise the work they do and the impact it makes…
To all the Alison’s, Ian’s and Rich’s out there… thank you!!
2nd June 2017
Image rights: ‘All In’ holiday