Sandra Peoples shares about “Unexpected Blessings”
by Sharon Mager
HOUSTON, Texas — Sandra Peoples has a sister, Syble, with Down Syndrome and a son, James, who has stage three autism—and she has an infectious joy in the Lord. Peoples will share that joy, as well as the challenges and heartbreak of caring for family members with special needs, as a keynote speaker at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s (BCM/D) Special Needs Conference on March 28 at Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Maryland.
She and her husband, Lee, have two boys, David and James. Sandra is quick to admit there are challenges. She and Lee were grieved over James’ diagnosis before coming to acceptance and comfort in the knowledge that James’ special needs, like Syble’s, were ordained by God for His glory. A person, a couple, a sibling, a family’s life is changed forever with such a diagnosis. But it is God’s beautiful plan. She says, “Our plan B is God’s plan A.”
An author and a church special needs consultant, Sandra uses her experience to bring hope and encouragement to individuals and to congregations. “I consider myself a special needs missionary,” she says. “It’s my calling to be encouraging to special needs families and to help educate them and introduce them to Christ.”
“As parents, we have a lot of worries and concerns and that worry can be overwhelming,” she acknowledges. “We say, ‘what’s going to happen in five, ten, or twenty years? What happens when he or she ages out of the school system? What does their future look like?
“The refrain throughout the Old Testament is to remember what God has done and tell other people,” she says. “Look back at the circumstances that He has brought you through. He will continue to be faithful and our job is to be faithful in telling others how God has been faithful.”
About special needs ministries in the church, Sandra says, “Don’t be overwhelmed by fear that you may do something wrong. You don’t have to have a plan in place for everyone who might walk through the door. Just love the ones who do. It’s not that hard, and what a huge impact that is for special needs families like mine.”
She and Lee literally “practice what they preach.” Lee is the pastor of Heights Baptist Church in Alvin, Texas.
When called to the church, he asked the search committee if they had a special needs ministry. They did not. Lee emphasized that it was a stipulation. He and his family could not come to a church that didn’t have a ministry for James, so he and Sandra not only started a ministry for their son, but they strategically targeted their ministry for special needs people in their community.
They had experience from starting similar ministries in two other churches. At a church in southern Pennsylvania, knowing they needed a place for James, they began a special needs ministry that became well-known in the community. “We had an “Autism Support Night,” respite nights, and a special needs fair,” she remembers. “At a booth at the fair, we had one woman come and ask, ‘Why is the church serving special needs families?’ I answered, ‘We have the hope of the Gospel and special needs families need that.’”
Lee brought a resolution to the Baptist General Convention of Texas regarding special needs ministries and the convention created a task force to study the issue and present a proposal to resource and equip churches to meet those needs.
Peoples emphasizes families as a major part of special needs outreach. “When you’re serving people with special needs, you’re serving the family,” she says. “Those families impact the community and can make a difference for generations — because our churches loved a special needs family.
“A good thing to remember is that special needs ministry is not just children’s ministry. As we welcome our kids who are growing, it is youth ministry, singles ministry, adult ministry – it falls under all of these umbrellas. A lot of churches start a special needs ministry for kids — who do need it — but they also need to be prepared to grow as the children grow,” she explains.
She cautions that the disability community is one that a person can become a part of on any given day — a car accident, a new birth of a special needs child, a stroke that causes cognitive challenges. “You don’t have the experience; where do you turn?” Sandra says.
“The church needs to be the anchor that holds these families together when they get the news of a diagnosis. You can just imagine looking around for help and the church being the least helpful. That’s not what we want for ourselves, our kids, our neighbors. We all have to take these steps to reach families and be as accommodating as we can be.” Conferences like these allow you to be equipped and encouraged.
Sandra said she admires the BCM/D and the Banquet Network for taking the lead in being a resource. “You’re there and willing. You have the answers and you’re holding them out. Churches have to take the easy step of coming, learning, and being available.”
Sandra will have copies of her current book, “Unexpected Blessings” available at the special needs conference. Visit her blog to learn more about Sandra, get practical advice, and learn more about the special needs community.
Photos provided by Sandra Peoples