Parents Grateful for FBC Berlin’s Disability VBS

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By Sharon Mager

BERLIN, Md. — For years, Berlin First Baptist Church (BFBC) Children’s Director Shannon Diehl prayerfully pondered the idea of the church having a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for children affected by disabilities. After all, she had a background of working with infants and toddlers affected by developmental disabilities, so it was right up her alley. “It was on my heart, but I pushed it down. I thought I couldn’t do it,” said Diehl. But recently, God again prompted Diehl, opened doors, and provided resources.

Kids in Bible story time enjoyed the interactive VBS at FBC Berlin and responded in a variety of ways. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

With counsel, training and assistance from Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) Disability Missionary Katie Matthews, grants from the BCM/D and the Eastern Baptist Association (EBA) and an excited and willing church family, Shannon and her husband BFBC pastor Brad Diehl, prayerfully led the congregation in bringing the idea to fruition. The church excitedly hosted their first Vacation Bible School for children with disabilities June 17-20. They ran the unique VBS in the mornings, Monday through Thursday. In the evenings, they offered VBS for neurotypical families throughout the week.

In addition to the usual prep work for VBS—recruiting volunteers, decorating, lesson planning, and activities—the church additionally created a sensory room and recruited “buddies,” who would stay with their assigned students for the VBS, walk them to the various stations, help them as needed, and be their friends. Volunteers also assembled sensory bags for each child, including headphones with noise canceling, electronic doodle pads, fidget toys, biting toys, and a snack.

The children engaged in the activities in their own unique ways. At the opening celebration, some sat with their parents and shyly watched while others were all in — singing with gusto and huge smiles, a few dancing, and one or two waving their arms.

After the celebration, the kids followed their buddies through the “tropical rainforest” story time area. Some sat on the floor in a circle, others stood by the doorway, and a few were a bit clingy and not comfortable entering the room. They were led to another area for a one-on-one activity.

Youth members Jameson and Callie performed skits for the opening celebration. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

Brad led the Bible study and told the story of creation and Noah’s Ark, adapting the Answers in Genesis “The Great Jungle Journey” curriculum, using the “special needs guide.” The material covered the “7 C’s of History:” Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation. Brad incorporated lots of interaction and hands-on activities, asking kids about their favorite fruits. (Watermelon and strawberries topped the list!). As he shared about creation and the fall of man, he turned on some music and passed around a paper bag. When the music stopped, whoever was holding the bag could open it. They hissed together as one boy pulled a picture of a snake from his bag. Later, they laughed at the image of an apple with a bite taken out, representing Adam and Eve’s disobedience in eating from the forbidden tree. Another bag had a broken black heart picture, and one boy proudly sounded out the word under the heart — “corruption.”

As Brad segued into the account of the great flood, he jumped up and said, “I have to get my raincoat and boots on for this!” He put the coat on backward, making the kids laugh loudly. When he started to put it on correctly, a little boy named Connor jumped up to give him a hand.

A boy named JJ was playing with a toy ark in the back, not really looking at Brad as he shared the story. When Brad asked, “Where did the animals go?” JJ immediately turned and said, “In the ark!” Brad emphasized that only those who entered the ark were saved from the flood.

Jeremiah smiles at his “buddy,” Elaina Andrews, while he sits enjoying a sensory bubble tube. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

Another child, Jeremiah, wasn’t comfortable in the Bible story area, so he sat in the foyer with his “buddy,” Elaina Andrews, playing with a sensory bubble tube as Elaina gently talked with him. “He loves water and seeing it move,” Andrews said. This was Andrews’ first time serving as a buddy. She said she loved what she was doing and was happy the kids had a safe place to experience God.

After storytime students learned more about God’s creation as they watched a “volcano” explode using baking soda and vinegar. Then, they headed outside to the playground, which included a new ADA swing and lots of bubbles. The VBS ended with a closing celebration with more music and dancing.

The church was lavishly decorated with a rainforest theme—complete with animals, birds, trees, and grass. The kids could also wear jungle hats as they trekked through. BFBC members Joe and Sue Ferster prepared the decorations in their shed. Joe emphasized that all materials were recycled—such as sheets donated by hotels, dyed carpet tubes, and natural vines added to the cardboard leaves. Artists in the church made and painted birds and animals.

Anisa Impasto, who brought her two sons, Phillip and Nathaniel, drove an hour to the church. Impasto was pleased with the entire program and said the church went above and beyond with the decorations. “They are beautiful,” she said.

Annie Young brought her four-year-old twins, JJ and Bria. Annie said the curriculum was perfect for JJ. “He is really into Noah’s ark! I’m impressed with all the resources available for the special needs kids. They were especially good at keeping the lights and music down low, creating a sensory room, and increasing the number of volunteers. I felt it was very well planned. They were also very ‘in tune’ with the kids’ needs. They had visual schedules with pictures. We’re grateful. Otherwise, we wouldn’t even have tried.”

Pastor Brad Diehl shares the story of Noah’s Ark. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

Katy Harlan, who brought her nine-year-old son Jeremiah, said there are some good groups in the area that help families with disabilities. Still, she‘s especially thrilled to have a VBS where Jeremiah can go where he is safe and cared for, and she doesn’t have to accompany him. She said, “I want him to learn about Jesus. When I say something, it doesn’t always click, but when someone else does, it clicks.”

Five summer missionaries from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry in Mississippi, working with Ocean City Baptist Church for the summer, also arrived to help the church with the VBS following training. Others also lent a hand, including Tanya Area, the director of children’s ministry and wife of Pastor James Area from First Baptist Church of Pocomoke City.

Finishing up the four days, Shannon was pleased. “We all had a great week. We were really blessed and encouraged, and we’re super glad we did it. The parents were grateful, she said. “I was surprised by parents saying there was nothing like this for their families. I’m excited to give them something.”

In addition to the disability-focused VBS on Monday through Thursday mornings, the church ran a neurotypical VBS in the evenings throughout the week, and over 110 kids participated. “Last night, we had four kids with autism in the evening. We were really glad we had the sensory room, sensory bags, and buddies in place,” said Shannon.

Respite Nights
The church is continuing their ministry to families with disabilities by offering a new respite nights initiative, The first respite night will be in August, though an official date has not been set.

Phillip was intrigued by the bubble machine on the playground. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

Shannon explained that their respite will be like a three-hour parents’ night out. Partnering with 99 balloons, a turnkey respite program that provides the material, the church will utilize their VBS buddies. They’ll have crafts, movies, games, and stories. Also, they’ll have medical professionals on site. They’ll also include activities for siblings, who Shannon said are sometimes unintentionally left out of the fun.

The church will promote the respite days through the VBS families, encouraging them to bring their friends on social media and through contacts at a local school.

Eastern Baptist Association Director of Missions Keith Myer was thrilled with the new ministry. “On Sunday, I attended BFBC and Shannon walked me through the church, showing me the buddy bags and different rooms. I was so moved by the attention to detail and all of the thoughtfulness and care in her planning. While she expressed some nervousness about launching out into a new kind of ministry, we both agreed that there’s value in starting new things and stepping out in faith and trusting that the Lord will work through this ministry.”

Myer said, “When I think of the modern missions movement and its emphasis on reaching the unreached, it becomes easy to see that those affected by disabilities make up an unreached people group. When you think of the ministry of Jesus, he was always interacting with and helping people with these kinds of needs.”

If your church is interested in starting or strengthening a disability ministry, contact Katie Matthews.

Feature photo: Shannon Diehl interacts with kids on the playground during FBC Berlin’s first Disability VBS. (Photo by Sharon Mager)

The BCM/D will have its first Disability Sunday on July 14. Various materials to help your church promote this special event are available here.