Christ Community church offers special program for kids with special needs

Yolanda Lynn says meeting Shelley Walls at Walmart was a blessing.

It led the Columbus woman to Access 18:16.

The children's ministry for children with special needs at Christ Community Church on Milgen Road in Columbus is having a significant impact on her life.

"It is great to be able to go to a place where I can have a moment to myself to hear the word of God," Lynn said. The youngest of her three children, 6-year-old Steven, has Down Syndrome and she found it difficult to attend a church service with him and was concerned about leaving him with just anyone.

Walls is the special education ministry director at the church and took an interest in Steven while shopping. That is how Lynn found out about the program.

Lynn isn't the only mother who feels there is something special about Access 18:16.

Shirley Waller's 6-year-old daughter Tani, the youngest of her three children, also has Down Syndrome. Her mental stage is that of a 3-year-old.

"People who do not have a child with a disability don't know how it affects everything you do. I could never get her to sit quietly in a pew. This allows me to have her in a place where I know she is being loved on with people who understand her situation. It really means everything to me," Waller said.

Waller said the inability to enjoy a worship service had been troubling to her.

Walls, the founder of Access 18:16, says the program is more than baby sitting.

"We have a curriculum," Walls said. "We want to show these children the love of God."

The program is part of Kingdom Kids at the church, a ministry for children in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. While currently a branch of the children's ministry, Walls hopes Access 18:16 may someday become a ministry in itself serving individuals of all ages with disabilities.

"Access 18:16 offers a continuum of support to best meet the individual needs of each child," Walls said. "While some children may be best suited for the Kingdom Kids Connect classroom which is a self-contained classroom, many children with disabilities thrive among their peers in the church's children program. In these cases, a buddy is assigned to provide comfort and consistency to the child and helps them be included into our children's program. Additionally, in the Connect classroom, we are doing reverse mainstreaming where we have children without disabilities to be a apart of the Connect class. This has been a very successful and rewarding classroom model for all participants."

She said currently the Connect classroom and buddy support for children with special needs are only offered at the 11 a.m. service.

"We hope to grow to the 9 a.m. service and to be a support in all ministries of the church so that families whom have children with special needs can be fully involved in every facet of the church body," Walls said.

Volunteers watching the children are trained by Walls who has a Ph.D. in early childhood special education from Auburn University. Walls is a stay-at-home mom with three young children. Her work at Christ Community Church is done on a volunteer basis.

"I was going to be a professor but God told me that my Ph.D won't expire but time with my children will," Walls said.

Walls said she has always had a passion for children and feels it is her mission to aid children with disabilities. It was in February that she gave testimony at a church service and talked about wanting to start a special needs program. A couple of months later, the program began.

Cailey Dumler, children's ministry director, said people had tears rolling down their cheeks at the testimony. About 40 people quickly volunteered.

"There is just a buzz in the church, an energy about this program," Dumler said.

The name Access 18:16 comes from the bible, Luke 18:16: "But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.'"

Walls said the words "do not hinder" led her to the word access.

"We wanted to keep the reminder of Jesus' words at the forefront of the ministry so we kept 18:16 as a part of the name," Walls said.

Dumler emphasized that while the class is for children with disabilities there is no therapy done.

Access 18:16 is a natural part of the growth of the Christ Community Church.

The church began 14 years ago in the home of pastor Keith Cowart, Dumler said. It has been in its beautiful new building for close to two years after spending time in a movie theater and former car dealership.

There are about 1,000 attendees at the church, many of them young families. "We get a lot of military," Dumler said.

She called the church "free methodist with a non-denominational feel."

Walls calls Access 18:16, which has an advisory board, a "place of encouragement."

"Our mission is to welcome families affected by special needs to a place of love, acceptance and encouragement in an authentic Christ-centered community," Walls said.

Waller is one who feels the program is completing its mission.

"It is a heck of a program," Waller said.