“Heaven is a playground,” wrote G.K. Chesterton more than a century ago. If the British philosopher and champion of play were to visit modern-day Wisconsin, he would be pleased to see the Lutheran investment in recreation for all.

Among the five projects awarded funding in 2023 from ELCA Disability Ministries are a park for people of all ages and of all ability and mobility levels, and new programming and staffing to strengthen the relationship between a venerable summer camp and young adults with disabilities.

“Our unofficial motto is ‘We take play serious,’” said Ty Stoneburner, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Seymour, Wis. This spring Emmanuel will open an inclusive park adjacent to the church.

“We are so excited about this,” added Robyn Koehler, co-director of the ELCA-affiliated Pine Lake Camp in Waupaca, Wis. “We noticed we had a gap, a whole section of folks who were not able to participate.”

Pine Lake, Emmanuel and the rest of the winning applicants were chosen from a strong pool of 30, said Lisa Heffernan, ELCA coordinator for Disability Ministries, whose four-person advisory committee used a detailed ranking system to make its selections.

The other three grant recipients are St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, which is striving to better welcome, support and empower neurodivergent children and their families through its Social Spectrum initiative; Peace Lutheran Church in Gahanna, Ohio, whose Friendship Connections program seeks to unite people with and without disabilities so they can work together on a range of volunteer service projects; and North Ave Mission (NAM), a synod-authorized worshiping community in Baltimore.

NAM serves people who are experiencing homelessness and food insecurity, people living with physical disability and mental illness, and others with lived experience of trauma. The grant will help its Building on Leadership Gifts program to provide a few NAM members with a year of mentoring and enhanced well-being supports, with the goal of growing their leadership skills for service within and beyond the mission.

“I appreciate that we can grant different expressions of ministry and can see funds used across the church.”

“There are so many great things out there,” Heffernan said. “It was so close among the top eight or so. We saw a lot of really creative things, folks thinking outside the box—not just a ramp or an elevator but programming as well. I appreciate that we can grant different expressions of ministry and can see funds used across the church.”

In Seymour the new park sprang from a seed planted years ago by a former Emmanuel neighbor, a young man on the autism spectrum who lived with his grandfather and spent a lot of time at the church.

When the grandfather died and the house needed to be sold, a family in the congregation gave Emmanuel the money to purchase the property, no strings attached, but with one request: Do something to help people with special needs.

“We brainstormed,” Stoneburner said. “What would it look like if we developed an inclusive park, allowing people of all abilities to come and use it? The young, the aging parents, a safe place for people to come and exercise and have social outings and group activities so people didn’t feel so isolated?”

The result is a fully fenced play and exercise area complete with covered pavilion and, importantly, accessible bathrooms; part of the $10,000 grant went toward an adult-size changing table.

“We’re evolving this as a ministry, as an extension of our congregation,” Stoneburner said. “A local misconception is, this is just for church members, but what we are trying to stress repeatedly is that the church has built this almost as gift to the community. We’ll be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep, but it is for the community, and we’ve already heard that people in neighboring communities are planning to come and use it too, which is great.”

In part two of this story, learn about the impact an ELCA Disability Ministries grant will have on Pine Lake Camp.

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

Read more about: