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It all started with a little boy whose family could no longer attend church on Sundays because of his severe autism. For Shannon Mulder, now special needs coordinator at Covenant Life Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich., that was a tragedy. She was connected to the family through her work as a speech therapist, but she also happened to run the preschool program at Covenant Life at the time.

She decided to approach Covenant Life to ask them to dedicate an unused room in the building, and to outfit it with special needs equipment such as a swing. Mulder had a passion to see that this little boy, and others like him, could have a place to go on Sunday mornings.

That place is called Special Treasures and is part of a program that runs on Sunday mornings for youth and young adults. Many children in the program are fully integrated into the regular Sunday school program, paired up with adult or peer buddies. Others use the Special Treasures classroom and sensory room as a safe and quiet space.

“Throughout my years working in [speech therapy], God drew me to want to support the parents. I thought there was a great need for everyone to grow in God’s love and the certainty that he’s always there, no matter what. I found God pulling me from the speech therapy field more to doing ministry alongside families who have children with special needs,” Mulder explained.

There is now a second program at Covenant Life designed to minister to children with special needs and their families.

Two years ago, Mulder started up Regatta, an after-school program where youth and young adults from the entire community can hang out with friends, do fun activities, and learn about God together. Participants, called “Sailors,” are paired up with adult or peer buddies, or “First Mates.” They share a snack, do a craft, relax with games like pool, foosball, or Ping-Pong, and then have an opportunity to hear a Bible story.

Mulder thinks the programs have opened the eyes of many in the congregation to see the gifts and the way that people with special needs can give back to our church. “It’s been very interesting to see how the idea of doing ministry with families as opposed to simply doing ministry to families has developed,” she said.

Kylee VanTol, a participant in both programs, said, “The best part about Regatta is that it’s a club where I'm not scared of being judged. I can just be myself and everyone loves me! I also love that we build great friendships and we explore God’s plans for us! The best part of Special Treasures is that we continue to grow deeper in God’s Word. I just read and studied the book of Matthew. ”

Kylee’s mom, Lyn VanTol, also happens to be the director of family ministries at Covenant Life. She said, “It has been pure joy to see our ministry to families with children with special needs go from a dream to impacting our whole community. We attract many of the top student leaders in our local high schools to serve as First Mates.  Several top athletes actually told their coaches last spring that they needed permission to miss their sport’s practices on Tuesdays because they couldn’t miss Regatta. A few volunteers have chosen to major in special education in college because of the relationships they’ve developed. The authentic friendships my daughter Kylee has developed, have blessed our entire family in immeasurable ways!”

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