Launched to share God’s love with people who have cognitive impairments, Friendship Ministries is celebrating 25 years.
In the past two-and-a-half decades, the nonprofit organization has touched lives around the globe, especially with its one-on-one mentoring program, which sets its curriculum apart from all others.
The idea for Friendship Ministries was born in 1979, when Jack and Dottie Wiersma sought a curriculum for their son Sherman, who has Down syndrome. Faith Alive Christian Resources, then called CRC Publications, hired Pat Nederveld as editor. By 1983, after visiting a program begun by the late Marcy Vanderwel and Martie Bultman at Third Reformed Church in Holland, Mich., Faith Alive had started publishing a curriculum and appointed a board that led to the establishment of Friendship Ministries. Faith Alive editor Cele Mereness became Friendship’s first executive director.
In Friendship Ministries’ first year, Bette Bosma and Shirley Los of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich., started the Friendship program in their congregation with six “Friends.” “We were very impressed with the materials right from the start,” said Bosma.
Nella Uitvlugt, who succeeded Mereness as executive director of Friendship, stated that art plays a huge piece in developing curriculum, since people who have cognitive impairments learn best visually. Consistency is also crucial, said Uitvlugt. Friends need to easily identify Jesus or Moses, for example, who are each depicted throughout the curriculum wearing the same clothing.
Friendship Ministries curriculum, available in English and Spanish, is used in more than 50 denominations today and in 20 countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
The ministry also provides consultation with Sunday school leaders and even has materials available for churches to write up a Spiritual Individualized Educational Plan for the Friends of that church.
Uitvlugt said, “People are afraid to include [people with cognitive impairments], but we need to welcome them as already included by God.”
One mentor-friend partnership from Grand Haven’s Second CRC has remained together through the 25 years, Merele Katt and her friend Libby Sanford.
Reflecting on meeting together weekly throughout those years, Katt said, “I think I received as much as Libby did.” Katt spoke of becoming good friends with Sanford’s mother and being there through life’s heartaches and joys as Libby learned to understand as much as possible of the Bible and God’s love. “It was a wonderful time of growing spiritually for both of us,” said Katt.