When Jason and Maggie Whitt shared about the impact of special needs ministry during the Childhood and Family Ministry Summit on August 12, they spoke from their personal experience parenting their 7-year-old daughter, Camille.
"It is important for the awareness to be heightened for families of children with special needs,” Whitt shared on Friday evening at First Baptist Church of Arlington, where the retreat was held. “This will raise the awareness of the entire church."
The Childhood and Family Ministry Summit, with 375 ministers in attendance this year, has prepared leaders on how to become better teachers, ministers and parents for the past 10 years. Under the direction of Diane Lane, Preschool and Children’s Specialist of Discipleship for Texas Baptists, the Summit provides numerous opportunities for networking, workshops, keynote addresses and introduction to a variety of tools and resources for ministry.
“The success is really measured by the teachers putting into practice the information they learned,” Lane said. “Our prayer before, during and after this conference is that people will be equipped to teach and the results are children being closer to God.”
An emphasis was given this year on ministering to families with special needs children, including two keynote addresses by Jason Whitt, associate director for the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University. A special pre-conference seminar was also taught by Dr. Tommy Sanders, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at East Texas Baptist University, on preparing to teach students of varying learning abilities within a classroom.
The Whitts live in Waco and are active members of Day Spring Baptist Church. In addition to Camille, they also have a 9-year-old son, Henry. The couple spent Friday evening’s address detailing their experience - from grieving upon first receiving the news of Camille’s diagnosis of a neurological disease, to embracing Camille’s life and seeing the blessing she is each day.
Due to her neurological disorder, Camille will never be able to walk, talk, crawl or feed. Although she may never be able to engage the world in those ways, she provides joy to every person she encounters.
From juggling medical appointments and insurance claims to logistics involved in caring for Camille’s needs each day, the Whitts have learned to rely upon the Lord and the army of help from family and friends. Detailing struggles for simple outings as a family, Maggie described the need to consider location, temperature control, accessible areas for feedings and changing and a myriad of additional logistics. She went on to tell ministers that understanding the day-to-day stressors and logistics can help as he or she approaches families with special needs children and works to help them in some way.
One suggestion they had for church leaders was to provide a list of ideas to help a family with a special needs child. Sometimes the offer of “call if you need anything” is daunting to a family, but having a list of tangible ways people in the church could help proved to be more tangible for the Whitt family.
Church members noticed Jason or Maggie sitting outside the church service with Camille each week during the sermon so Camille could move around and make noise. Volunteers offered to coordinate a schedule to sit with Camille so her parents could stay in the service. Now, a team affectionately known as “Camille’s Companions” take turns sitting with her and many have expressed to the family that it is the greatest part of their week.
“We focus on the blessings,” Maggie Whitt said. “Some days this is much harder to do than others. There is always blessing. Camille herself is the biggest blessing of all. God is showing me how to find blessing and good, despite the circumstances. She is a true delight, full of love.”
Jason shared about the world of people and families they have been introduced to since the birth of their daughter. He also transitioned his research focus from theology of politics to studying more about the theology of disability, an area he continues to study and teach at Baylor University.
To learn more about ministry to families with special needs children, contact Diane Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (214) 828-5287. You can also visit our Childhood Discipleship website for more information.