We’re delighted to welcome Amanda Mooney to the blog today. In addition to her service on the Key Ministry Board of Directors, Amanda has served on staff as the Principal of St. Gabriel’s Parish School of Religion (PSR) since 2008. In her staff position, Amanda oversees a team of 40 volunteers offering programming for 300 children in grades 1-5 on a weekly basis, along with a comprehensive Special Needs ministry serving members of the church of all ages.
This upcoming week, her team will host their third Annual “One Day Voyage,” a unique event in which they created an abbreviated version of Vacation Bible School designed to be compatible and comfortable for kids with disabilities and offer a respite experience for the families. This was made possible because of the partnership and training of her team by Key Ministry. Today, Amanda discusses her church’s experience with One Day Voyage.
AM: One Day Voyage is an afternoon designed to give children with varying abilities and their siblings an opportunity to participate at their own comfort level in an amazing parish program modeled after Vacation Bible School. Every child has a one on one teen buddy to ensure both safety and fun!
To help people know if this is right for them, we give a more specific description below:
One Day Voyage VBS is for children who:
- Are at least 5 years of age
- Are shy, nervous in large groups, are adverse to loud noises, have other fears or anxieties that may interfere with full participation in the week-long Vacation Bible School program
- Have a disability that makes a one day VBS experience preferable
- Are the siblings of a child who needs this program
- For any reason, would benefit from having a one-on-one buddy with them at all times
- Would do better choosing the activities they want to participate in
- Have a medical, emotional or behavioral issue that would make their participation in the week long Vacation Bible School difficult
C4EC: Why did your church decide to offer a one-day Vacation Bible School experience for kids with disabilities?
AM: One Day Voyage came about after hearing about Breathe Respite from Key Ministry. I wasn’t quite ready to take on that kind of project but loved the idea of creating a respite opportunity for parents of kids with special needs. We already have a very vibrant Vacation Bible School at our church and I really wanted this amazing program to reach as many children as possible. St. Gabriel VBS runs almost entirely with teens- 160 teen volunteers to be exact- so I decided to tap into what we already were doing well! Our first year we simply asked the parents of the children in our special needs religious education program, along with extending the invitation to local schools and churches. Families of children we already knew were our biggest source of publicity as they passed the information on to other families they knew would be interested.
C4EC: How often do you see kids with disabilities struggle with standard Vacation Bible School programming?
AM: My own son, who has ADHD had struggled during VBS for 2 years before deciding, “it’s just not for me, mom.” I am one of the coordinators of the program, so I was sad that a program I personally worked so hard to bring to so many of our church, wasn’t something that my son (then 8) could participate in without struggle and stress. I knew there were other kids also, who, while completely mainstreamed at our Parish School, didn’t feel comfortable participating in one of our biggest Parish events. Along with that, none of our children from our special needs program even thought about VBS being for them, which I knew was a problem.
Our volunteers-adults and teens-are amazing! I knew if we were more deliberate in our invitation to children during our current VBS program, along with adding a “scaled down” version, our volunteers would do a great job helping everyone feel included and we would reach even more children and families.
C4EC: Has there been any consideration of adapting your curriculum to give kids with disabilities a week-long VBS experience?
AM: We have found that the draw of our One Day Voyage is that it is ONE day! Many families have other camps, therapies, etc., going on and this is a perfect amount of time to be able to dedicate. On the flip side, we do have children with special needs who participate in our week-long VBS. Some have a one-on-one buddy and others do great with the original crew format-which is 8 children to 3 teen volunteers. It really is all about looking at each participant as an individual, talking with the parents, training the teen volunteers and being FLEXIBLE!
What I have found is that it isn’t the curriculum that needs adapting, because VBS is a great hands on, fast moving program (we use Group, and love it!). We focus our adaptations on the individual child. Knowing them well enough to know when they may need to leave a station early because it has gotten to loud or skipping one station to stay in another one twice because that’s where they are most comfortable. Again, FLEXIBILITY is the name of the game!
C4EC: What was your greatest surprise when offering the one-day experience in past years?
AM: I had 2 great surprises during our first One Day Voyage. The first was that, even more important than the event itself, was what offering it said to families. It let them know that we cared about everyone in our Parish and community and that we wanted them to be with us! They were so appreciative that we would offer something like this for no other reason than because we cared!
The other amazing thing that happened was that a huge number of volunteers (we had 3 times as many volunteers as participants our first year!) rallied around this project before they even knew what they were getting into! This was a project that everyone instantly understood its’ importance and wanted to be a part of it. Even after a long and tiring week-long program, our teens showed up on Saturday morning (I must admit I had my doubts they would come-we were all so tired!) and exceeded my expectations. They didn’t just show up, they were enthusiastic and gave just as much joy and energy to this small group of kids as they did the 200 all week long. The participants loved having a teen buddy to hang out with too! Kids opened up in ways I had never seen-I knew most of these kids well-and it’s because they were with a teen who could relate to them and give them their undivided attention.
C4EC: What unique challenges to you encounter in serving kids with disabilities and their families in a Roman Catholic church?
When it comes to our One Day Voyage, there is no difference between what we provide in our Catholic church for kids with special needs and in any other Christian church.
I think the only significant difference is in preparation for receiving of the Sacraments-First Eucharist and First Reconciliation. We of course are not doing that during VBS, but as a part of our school year program for kids with special needs. It’s actually not as difficult as people may think because the Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about the basic requirements for children with special needs. We work individually with each child and preparedness is decided upon by the catechist (teacher), the parent and the priest. Open communication, teamwork and willingness to think “out of the box” are all key factors.
C4EC: How can other ministry leaders learn more about offering similar VBS experiences to families of kids with disabilities in the communities they serve?
AM: Key Ministry is a great resource for learning how to launch any type of program (either a one time event or an ongoing program).
We would also welcome you to come and see our One Day Voyage first hand! Wed., June 20th from 2:00-4:30 PM at St. Gabriel Church. We also invite you to spread the word and pass the registration form (found at www.st-gabriel.org) on to any families who may want to participate. Registration has been extended-so join us today!
Key Ministry’s mission is to help churches reach families affected by disability by providing FREE resources to pastors, volunteers, and individuals who wish to create an inclusive ministry environment. We invite you to partner with us as we advance the Kingdom through our collaboration with the local and global church. We have designed our Key Catalog to create fun opportunities for our ministry supporters to join in our mission. The Key Catalog includes a variety of gift options for every budget. A gift from the Key Catalog also makes for an amazing gift for a friend or loved one who is passionate about seeing the Body of Christ become more inclusive of people with disabilities. Click here to check it out!