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Church offers respite and relaxation to special-needs children and parents
Kids have a safe zone to play while parents have a night out
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Mica Anderson, 6, eats with Caylee Wagner, 11, during the respite program at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Lakewood Baptist Church’s JOY Special Needs Ministry respite

When: Every third Saturday of the month

Where: Lakewood Baptist Church, 2235 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville

How much: Free for children with special needs and their siblings

More info:

In December 2010, Debbie Mott and her husband got the news many couples hope to hear: Debbie was expecting their first child.

“We were very excited,” Mott said. “We got very excited about what that meant for us, and we started envisioning life with our little peanut.”

Around the same time, Mott heard her pastor, Tom Smiley, discuss Lakewood Baptist Church’s JOY Special Needs  Ministry, which began in 2004 as an attempt to offer individuals with special needs and their family members a place in the church. Today, the JOY Ministry — which stands for Jesus’ Opportunity for You — organizes Sunday school, vacation Bible school and monthly respites for children and adults with special needs.

When Smiley discussed the JOY Ministry’s need for volunteers during his sermon, Mott felt conflicted.   

“I started feeling this stirring, but I ignored it,” Mott said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about special-needs kids, I’m going to have a baby, I won’t have time. I just don’t have time to do it.’”

Life-changing experience

Midway into Mott’s pregnancy, everything changed.

Shortly after learning they were having a boy, Mott and her husband were informed their unborn son had multiple heart defects and a brain defect as the result of a chromosomal abnormality. While one physician urged the Motts to terminate their pregnancy, Mott wanted “to carry him for as long as God would allow.”

Mott’s son, Harvey Glen Mott, was born Aug. 22, 2011. He weighed 4 pounds and 7 ounces at full term. The Motts took Harvey home, where he died after living for 30 hours.

While Mott cherishes the time she spent with her son, his death was her “worst nightmare.”

In her sorrow, Mott once again encountered a familiar feeling.

“After Harvey passed away, we kept coming to church and kept hearing about JOY Ministry, and God just would not give up,” Mott said. “I continued to ignore it, and I wrestled, wrestled, wrestled.”

Finally, Mott volunteered with Lakewood’s monthly respite care but not with the intention of staying.

“I was like ‘I’ll show (God) how unequipped I am for this,’” Mott said.

Volunteering with respite

For three hours every third Saturday, volunteers play and socialize with special needs children and their siblings. This monthly break allows the children’s parents, who serve as primary caregivers for their special-needs children, a much-deserved hiatus from their children. The adults can relax, go on a date or just focus on themselves. 

Mott, who now has an 18-month-old son, has been a respite volunteer ever since. 

“Had my son lived, he would’ve probably had special needs, and I got to thinking about how (respite) is just three hours (a month),” the 41-year-old mother said. “That’s a break these parents don’t get. They don’t get to run errands or go on dinner dates or take naps the way the rest of us do, and I realize I had taken a lot of that for granted. I was like ‘I can do this,’ and I walked away that night more blessed, and I felt like I was a blessing to everybody else.”

The “blessing” Mott and others provide begins at 5 p.m. Saturday night when the children arrive with their parents or caretakers. Volunteers greet them and their siblings by name as they put away their bags and lunchboxes for safe-keeping until dinnertime.

The children then play together in a Sunday school room or Lakewood’s gym, sharing markers, blocks and basketballs just like any other group of kids. It quickly becomes a high-energy, good-natured rumpus JOY Ministry Director Kristen Pruitt affectionately calls “organized chaos.”

The only downside is there are “never enough” volunteers to supervise the 20 special-needs children and their siblings. It is especially difficult to find residents willing to handle children who often require constant one-on-one supervision.

Despite the lack of volunteers, the ministry has evolved since its founding in 2004.

Furnishing a safe zone

Church members first contemplated starting the ministry by offering individuals with special needs and their families something they didn’t previously have — a welcoming place at church.

Pruitt, who also works as a pediatric physical therapist, witnessed this deficit firsthand among her patients.

“I saw the need (for a special needs ministry) because a lot of my (patients’) families didn’t go to church because they didn’t have anywhere to take their kids,” Pruitt said.

While tackling the initial research to start JOY Ministry, Ernest Dadisman encountered some individuals who said they felt unwelcome at other churches because the congregants didn’t know how to accommodate a special-needs individual.

“They were just hungry for a place to be able to bring their child,” Dadisman said. “That broke my heart when I heard about a church anywhere, be it Baptist, Methodist, wherever, that anybody could put themselves in a position where they could decide that a family or a child was not to come into the church environment because they had a special need.”

But since its birth, the JOY Ministry has grown beyond its humble beginnings as a Sunday school class. The ministry now offers respite care once a month and vacation Bible school classes in the summer.

The volunteer-based ministry also has expanded to serve adults with special needs.

Leaving kids in capable hands

Aside from making special-needs individuals welcome in a church setting as well as providing religious nourishment, respite serves another function: providing parents with special-needs children and their siblings with more than just a regular babysitter. And this one act of kindness allows parents to feel comfortable enough to leave their children for an evening.

“It’s nice, because not only is it for the special-needs kids, but they let the siblings come, too,” said Kelly Anderson, who has eight children. “So we don’t have to find a baby sitter for all those. It gives us a night out, so that’s really nice.”

Anderson and her husband, Doug, have two biological daughters and six children adopted from foster care, several of whom have special needs. Their daughter Cara, 11, has cerebral palsy and seizures. Mica, 6, has a rare genetic disorder called MPS. And their 16-year-old daughter has autism.

“It’s hard to find baby sitters because of the seizures and feeding tubes (and) hearing aids,” Anderson said. “Mica gets eye drops three times a day, all of that.

“Our daughter who’s autistic, it’s hard because she’s 16, so she doesn’t want a baby sitter.”

But all of Anderson’s children have attended respite at one point. Now they look forward to it just as much as their parents.

Smiling children, volunteers

When parents and caregivers collect their children around 8 p.m., most ask questions about their child’s experience — demonstrating the constant job it is to care for a special-needs child.

That never-ending level of concern and vigilance is not lost on the children themselves. Between homeschooling, special classes or the inability to go out in public for fear of overstimulation, many use respite to feel like real kids.

“So much of their life is doctor’s appointments and therapy, and so just to come and have fun is a great time for them,” Pruitt said. “They get to interact with other children the same age, sometimes with the same diagnosis. And they’re just in a safe zone so they can have fun.”

The children leave with smiles and the volunteers clean up the “chaos.” But they are even seen smiling after returning from dumping the trash bags and diapers.

As with Debbie Mott, the reality of encountering such joy from a trying task is an aspect not lost on any volunteers.  

“I think those (who) come and volunteer get more of a blessing just because of the smiles on (the children’s) faces, and just how life is good all the time for them,” Pruitt said. “Even though they might not be able to do the things that typical kids get to do, they don’t know that difference, and they’re happy anyway. It’s just amazing. You see God’s love through every one of them.”