It’s 7:00 am in Toronto on a chilly December morning as I climb into my car and head towards Bloorview School Authority where Shelley Neal and Debbie Sutherland work with children with exceptional needs. I don’t generally schedule meetings for 7:15 am in the morning, but when I realized how busy Shelley and Deb were it was easy to make an exception. They give me a quick tour of innovative facilities of both the school and the Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital where many of their young students are from. Surprisingly, we’re not meeting to talk about the reasons why camera news crews are on site that morning: the cutting-edge technology used in rehabilitation or the stirring stories of so many children receiving treatment at the hospital or education in the school. We’re there to talk about what Shelley and Deb do in their “off-time.”
Passionate about serving God and children with special needs, Shelley and Deb began a rEcess ministry at their church, Kingsway Baptist. There, one Saturday evening a month, parents who have children with special needs are invited to drop off all of their children and go on a date to reconnect or simply have time to rest and recharge.
It was October 19th, 2013 when they began this ministry and it has been going strong since. The fact that it has grown 11 children from 7 families to 35 children from 24 families in the span of a year speaks to the profound need for families to find support in their local church. Parents’ comments range from , “I can’t remember when we were out last,” to “Why are you doing this?” and “We can’t believe it’s free.”
There has been overwhelming response not only from families who benefit from the service but from community partners, such as SupperWorks Etobiko who donate dinner for volunteers (children bring their own food to accommodate various dietary needs), and from the diverse volunteer base who eagerly provide 1:1 support – not only for children with special needs but for typically developing siblings as well. Many of the large activities, such as a bouncey castle, have been bought at reduced cost from people on Kijiji excited to help out or are donated. Gift cards for parents to go on a date are another way that the community helps out, a way of saying “this night is for you, too.”
One of the potential hurdles for churches when thinking of starting a respite program is the feeling of “Where do we even start?”
The beauty of the rEcess model, established by 99 Balloons, is that no one needs to start from scratch. While Shelley and Deb run the only “Canadianized” version of rEcess, there are 20 running throughout North America. Even though the program is church-owned, the framework provided by 99 Balloons has been “wonderful” with “amazing support” according to Debbie. There are regular conference calls for problem-solving and they are quick to update forms, the online registration form or resources which might previously have referred to American content or guidelines.
Despite the tremendous advocacy and initiative of Shelley and Deb, they are quick to point out that it is not a “one man show” and the importance of a good core leadership team. As advice for churches thinking about starting a rEcess model, they spoke to the importance of a strong prayer base, how crucial it is to form positive and honest relationships with families and volunteers, and the need to train and empower volunteers. With a good infrastructure in place, volunteers can essentially “run it on their own.”
Listening to the difference that rEcess is making in the lives of families impacted by special needs, both in and out of the Kingsway church community, I wish that Shelley and Deb could be transplanted into hundreds of churches across the province. They are remarkable people who have chosen to serve God where they’re at.
The reality is, though, that there are thousands of people throughout the province and country who are also remarkably gifted to serve God where they are. It may not look exactly like rEcess at Kingsway, but that’s the beauty of gifting.
As I thank my hosts for our time together, early as it may be, Deb says “It’s actually pretty easy,” referring to their work with rEcess. At first I look at her incredulously, thinking back to her descriptions of the amount of work that goes into a program like this. Then I am reminded of the number of volunteers, partners, and supporters that have come alongside to join them in this work. I suppose if we’re all on board it does make the work easy – especially in light of the encouragement and positive impact it can have on families experiencing God’s love in a tangible way.
The video below is about rEcess from 99 Balloons. It doesn’t feature Kingsway specifically, but may help you catch a glimpse into the possibility of hosting something like this in your own church or faith community. I’m sure Shelley and Deb would be more than happy to connect with anyone who may have questions about where to begin. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to learn more.