The church is committed to welcoming all people into God’s work in the world—without hesitation—and ELCA Disability Ministries demonstrates this value. As part of its continuous support of ministries that foster spiritual growth and honor everyone’s capacity to contribute, Disability Ministries has awarded grants to Thrive Day School in Waxhaw, N.C., and Trinity Lutheran Church in Mason City, Iowa.

Thrive Day School is a special education preschool for children aged 3 to 5 who have autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other emotional, social or learning delays or disabilities. The preschool is a ministry of Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte, which has three campuses. Thrive is on the Christ South campus.

The school opened in 2018 after people involved in the children’s ministry at Christ South saw need in the community. “We knew, in the Charlotte area, that there isn’t another preschool that works with students with special needs,” said Laura Scott, director of Thrive. “If your child needs extra help or specialty services, those aren’t available, so we thought there was a need in the community and that it was something our church could meet.

“The early years are so important for children’s development, and for children with autism or genetic disorders, [it’s] important services get started early.”

A grant from ELCA Disability Ministries provided funds to purchase everything needed for the classrooms, Scott said, including tables, chairs and specialty toys for students with autism and Down syndrome.

“Most of these kids’ families don’t feel comfortable bringing [their] children to church. But the members here say, ‘Come in, it’s OK if they have a moment or need to step away.’”

This school year, Thrive will have 16 to 20 students, with a ratio of one teacher for every four students. Leaders are also starting a new home-school co-op called Thrive Home.

Thrive has several community partners, such as associations and therapy companies, that Scott said are central to the school’s operation. Mornings consist of school time, but in the afternoons therapists and doctors who have partnered with the school can provide speech, occupational and physical therapy on the premises so students don’t have to travel to a different facility.

Most of Thrive’s students don’t worship at Christ, but Scott has been gratified to see how parishioners want to invite the families to services and get to know them. “Most of these kids’ families don’t have that support and don’t feel comfortable bringing [their] children to church,” she said. “But the members here say, ‘Come in, it’s OK if they have a moment or need to step away.’ The support from the church has been great.”

In the next couple of years the congregation hopes to build a much larger facility for Thrive that could serve about 60 students, Scott said.

Intentional invitations

Last fall, Trinity received a mental-health ministry grant from ELCA Disability Ministries while undergoing a major renovation to make its building more accessible.

“We thought that if we’re equipping our building, we need to equip our hearts to walk alongside our brothers and sisters with mental health issues and disabilities to become a whole community of faith,” said Becky Elsbernd, parish nurse at Trinity.

Part of the grant provided educational events and trainings to help staff and parishioners better understand mental health issues. They had a kickoff event called “Open Hearts” and organized several programs, including two that were specifically geared toward confirmation-aged youth. They also hosted a health fair that included stations for younger children.

Hospitality ambassadors are mindful of how they can invite individuals with mental health issues or disabilities to participate in the life of the church.

Elsbernd said the educational events were open to the public, and quite a few people from outside the congregation attended the presentations.

In addition to the educational events, a large part of Trinity’s mental health ministry centers on a “hospitality ambassador” program. “We wanted to gather a group of volunteers—hospitality ambassadors—who went through training components and could be role models to the rest of the congregation as we strive to be more welcoming and inclusive,” Elsbernd said.

Right away, 21 people volunteered. The hospitality ambassadors are expected to be aware of how the congregation is welcoming to people with mental illnesses and how they can invite individuals who have mental health issues or disabilities to participate in the life of the church. They may also serve as companions who can provide support through phone calls or during worship or church activities, should someone request it.

When he first heard about the new ministry, member Rich Murray said he was “all in” and volunteered to be an ambassador. “Here we have created an opportunity for many people in the community who are often considered ‘invisible’ to become very visible—to make new friends, to join us in our celebrations, to come be part of our worship, to grow in faith and friendship,” he said. “It was a win-win for everyone involved. …

“We learned quickly that when the church reaches out to others, the church becomes the recipient of so many unexpected and wonderful gifts.”

Murray, a retired pastor, said he has gotten to know other parishioners better through the ambassador program. He also has become good friends with a young man living in a group home and has attended many events at Trinity with him.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person activities at Trinity, Elsbernd said the hospitality ambassadors have continued their role by becoming pen pals with people at a local organization that serves individuals with mental health issues and disabilities.

Elsbernd said the ambassadors have told her that their training equipped them to handle mental health concerns, which have only increased with the pandemic, and that they’ve been more helpful to their friends and family.

“Part of Trinity’s mission statement is ‘We are called to share God’s healing love,’” Elsbernd said, “and [this ministry] is helping us reach out as servants to share that love and to realize that we are not a whole body of faith without everyone included.”

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Megan Brandsrud
Brandsrud is a former content editor of Living Lutheran.

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