10 Years Celebrating Every Life is Special!®
What is the purpose of Special Life Network?
The purpose of Special Life Network is to facilitate the integration of children, teens and adults with disabilities into the broader community. We do this by implementing a simple 4 point strategy.
•1. Increase Awareness
•2. Network Community Knowledge, People and Resources
•3. Provide Education and Training
•4. Transform Lives
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The facts on individuals with disabilities are alarming. The trends are not going away. Did you know 54 million Americans (20.6% of the U.S. population) live with some level of disability and 26 million have a severe disability that may require daily assistance? (1) An estimated 4 million (8%) are children under 18 years of age. (2) .
Certain disabilities like autism are on the rise. Odds are that a child has a 1/23,000 chance of being killed in a fatal car accident, yet autism affects 1 in 150 children and 1 in 94 boys are on the autistic spectrum. A child with autism is being diagnosed every 20 minutes according to Autism Speaks. (3) .
The challenge of caring for a family member with a disability can at times seem overwhelming. But at the same time the challenge can be a true blessing to those impacted. Tyler is a 14 year old boy that has autism and is non-verbal. He uses sign language to communicate and is able to learn with a very structured teaching approach. Prior to Faith Bible Church (FBC) starting their Joyful Blessings Ministry, Tyler really had no place to participate in church programs, activities and events. Today he actively participates each Sunday along with several other children, teens and adults that are served by FBC's Joyful Blessings Ministry.
Surprisingly less than 15% of churches have official programs or ministries designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities. (4) It's not that churches or other organizations do not want to help.
The issue really comes down to awareness of the problem, knowing how to develop a good adaptive program or special needs ministry, and having the leadership and support network to share ideas and resources to help that program or ministry be successful and grow. That is where Special Life Network can help.
When an individual or organization pro-actively reaches out to accept and integrate children, teens and adults with disabilities, they build both spirit and character, and we in-turn build a richer community....a "SPECIAL LIFE®" Community. Ultimately we want to build a model "SPECIAL LIFE" Community here in The Woodlands and surrounding area that other communities can model.
That may sound like a long ways off, but since its inception Special Life Network has attracted a broad base of participation and enthusiasm from members of over a dozen local area churches. Some of those churches are listed below.
1. Crossroads Baptist Church - Hope Ministry
2. Community of Faith*
3. Christ Church United Methodist
4. Faith Bible Church - Joyful Blessings Ministry*
5. Fellowship of The Woodlands*
6. First Baptist Church of The Woodlands
7. Friendship United Methodist Church
8. Gateway Baptist
9. Grace Crossing Community Church of Christ* - Jorge Ministry
10. Graceview Baptist Church - Joy Ministry
11. Klein United Methodist Church
12. Oak Ridge Baptist Church*
13. Montgomery United Methodist Church
14. St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church
15. The Woodlands United Methodist Church - Special Blessings Ministry
16. Trinity Episcopal Church* - The Woodlands
17. West Conroe Baptist Church*
18. WoodsEdge Community Church* - Special Hearts Ministry
The asterisk indicates a special needs ministries where Special Life Network has played a support role.
Participation outside our community has been equally as exciting. Special Life Network includes registered participants from Special Needs Ministry Network of Des Moines Iowa, who has been modeling our concept in their community for the last year. In addition, last July Special Life Network hosted a visit from Ashton Dugger from Church of the Highlands, Birmingham Alabama. Ms. Dugger is assisting in starting a special needs ministry program at their church which includes 9000 members and spans 4 campuses. The need in all of our communities is huge. Our biggest challenge as an organization is that at times the demand for our time and services exceeds our resource capability to deliver. Special Life Network is a 100% volunteer organization with no paid staff, including the board of directors.
The Imagine Plan Solution
We plan to address that challenge with our SPECIAL LIFE "Imagine Plan" that we will be building with support from various community leaders and others engaged with the special needs community. To develop this plan, a number of SPECIAL LIFE Advisory Councils will be formed to provide input and feedback to our board. The question is simple. "Imagine what the ideal SPECIAL LIFE Community might look like here in our community". Ideas will be categorized within our 4 core strategies: Increase Awareness, Provide Education and Training, Network Community Knowledge and Resources, and Transform Lives. These ideas will then be prioritized and formulated into a 3-5 year plan, and funding to support the plan will then be pursued.
When was Special Life Network founded?
The answer depends on how you define "founded". Special Life Network started as a support group of parents, professionals, volunteers and children's ministers in The Woodlands, TX that agreed to meet on a monthly basis to share information on how children, teens and adults could be better integrated into the church. We all met at a conference held at Graceview Baptist Church in Tomball. The focus of that conference was how churches can help families with a special needs family member.
As we met each month the group became more and more energized. The vision of a non-profit organization with headquarters in The Woodlands, TX started to take shape. We incorporated in April 2005 and formed a board of directors represented by parents, volunteers, professionals and children's pastors. We received a small matching grant from Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, CA in September 2005, and the same month they helped us with our first volunteer training event for churches. We achieved 501c3 status in February 2006. Our first major fund raising event was in May 2006 which featured Christian vocalist Chris Tomlin. Later that year we obtained federal service mark approval on SPECIAL LIFE, Every Life is Special, and our design mark from the US Patent Office.
In 2007 we built out our Special Life Website. This is the very first E-Community website of its kind for the special needs community. In doing so we have redefined the concept of "Special Needs Community" to include caretakers, family members, professionals, service providers, churches and other community organizations like the YMCA. This is in addition to children, teens and adults with disabilities. .
Is Special Life Network Christian based?
We are a Christian-led organization that serves the entire community. Christian-led means our board of directors share the same Christian beliefs. As a leadership team we pray and believe that through God all things are possible. We certainly believe that God's hand has been working with Special Life Network.
As a non-profit charity, our responsibility is to serve the entire community. Our network meetings and our E-Community website are available to the general public. Our job is to inform, train, network and enable individuals and organizations to help build a SPECIAL LIFE Community. The Church and other faith based organizations are a very important part of that community and play a lead role. Their response has been overwhelmingly positive.
For example, The Woodlands United Methodist Church (TWUMC) was instrumental in providing support and helping us get started. The very first support group meeting along with several Special Life networking meetings were held there. In 2006 TWUMC offered their facility as a venue for our first major awareness / fund raising event.
Our local YMCA has also been an excellent supporter of our vision. After an initial meeting held with YMCA directors in 2006, the first adaptive swimming lessons were started in Conroe, TX the following summer. Shortly afterwards the YMCA created a new Director of Adaptive Services position. Krista Riply now fills that position and is doing a great job creating new adaptive programs and events for special needs children, teens and adults that just a few years ago were not available in our community.
What Special Life Network Services and Training Are Available and How Often?
There is no regular training schedule, and we base our training directly on the needs that we are made aware of through our networking meetings or through our website. At the time this article was written, our last training event was held October 18th 2008 at Trinity Episcopal Church. The training focused on how to implement and operate a special needs ministry and covered a variety of topics ranging from how to properly shadow a child with special needs, to how church greeters should approach a new family that has a family member with a disability.
Our Best Practice Document Library is available 24/7 through our website to anyone who wants to register. Registration is absolutely free. Registered participants will find a wealth of information including news, training tools, an event calendar and helpful web links.
Networking meetings are held quarterly. The focus of our last meeting was to identify those upcoming holiday programs in our community that will be adapted especially to accommodate families that care for an individual with a disability. We have published these on our website in our very first SPECIAL LIFE Holiday Events Calendar.
Who can benefit from this organization?
That is a matter of perspective and scope. On a micro level the individual with a disability, their caretakers and family benefit through increased community awareness and the additional ministries and adaptive programs available through churches and/or community organizations. In addition the individuals and their families can benefit from the SPECIAL LIFE E -Community website and training events. On a macro level the entire community benefits. Sometimes those most impacted are the volunteers, whether they are volunteers that work in the various ministries or volunteers for Special Life Network.
What volunteer opportunities are available with Special Life Network?
As a 501c3 non-profit organization, Special Life Network has many similar operating challenges as a business. As a result we need volunteers with business skills just as much as we need volunteers that want to be involved with delivering our services. We provide a great local opportunity for high school and college students seeking 501c3 credit. We recently had a project completed by a 16 year old high school girl, Madison Morris, who was taking a dual credit Lone Star College class. Her project involved identifying the attributes of a website that churches should consider for their special needs ministry. Her brother has enjoyed the benefits of the special needs ministry at the church where they both attend.
One could argue that the greatest benefit is the cultural change that takes place in a community. That happens when individuals, organizations and congregations become more aware that there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to an individual with a disability. How can you measure the benefit when someone starts to see through the disability and simply sees a person with a different-capability.
When we arrive at the mindset that "Every Life is Special", we become a richer community; not monetarily richer, but richer in spirit and character. When we create a SPECIAL LIFE Community, we demonstrate a wonderful example to our children and other communities who want to follow our lead. When we create a SPECIAL LIFE Community we create a community that exemplifies the unconditional love of Christ.
Special Life Network
•· Disability Statistics Center. Frequently Asked Questions: How Many Americans Have a Disability? http://dsc.ucsf.edu/UCSF/spl.taf?_from=default.
•· Disability Statistic Center. Abstract 15: Disabilities Among Children. March 1996. http://dsc.ucsf.edu/UCSF/spl.taf?_from=default.
(4) Joni and Friends "In His Image Video". Validated independently by Special Life Network for churches in The Woodlands area.