SEEDS is a social group for adults affected by disability rooted in Luke 14:13 mandate that reads: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed”. God sent His Son to the whole world so that his house will be full.
Was my church full? Is your church full?
In 2016, while on a Joni and Friends family retreat as a short- term missionary, a friend and mother of a young lady with cerebral palsy told me about a social group that her daughter had attended and loved, but it had ended. Was there someone whom I knew that could take on another group for young adults with a disability? A quick and deep conviction stirred in me and I decided then to act on it.
Since SEEDS was the original name of the group and was supported by Joni and Friends organization in PA, I received permission to use the name/acronym, and met with the staff at Joni and Friends, and with another local ministry called Peaceful Living for support and guidance about how to begin. I had no experience and certainly did not see myself as a leader, but my heart was in this. I met with the ministers of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church for approval, visited local churches with an established disability ministry, read “Through the Roof” by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Miller, and prayed.
In January 2017 we held a disability workshop at Blooming Glen with an invitation for volunteers. Over 40 people attended- it felt like a miracle was happening with doors and hearts opening. The congregation was welcoming, they just needed to be invited! Over 20 signed up to jump in with me and create a ministry that we knew little about, including many high school volunteers.
The first SEEDS gathering of “friends” and “buddies” happened in February 2017. Friends are adults aged 18-35 from the community at large. I met each friend in their home first to assess what their needs were, but more importantly, to meet their heart. What do they like? Do they have friends? How do they spend the day? Do they know Jesus? The disability was not as important, after all we are not a special needs classroom and there are no IEPs. We meet our friends where they are with open hearts and full acceptance. Friendship in Christ is our goal.
Each monthly evening gathering in the MYF room at church is attended by 10-12 friends and 8-10 volunteers. We begin in a circle with prayer, an ice-breaker, songs of praise, a bible lesson, an activity and end with a healthy snack/social time. Although a schedule is reviewed at the start, we remain flexible. Hands raise quickly when asked who wants to play Jesus or a disciple when we act out a bible story with simple props like scarves. UNO is a favorite game, played with much excitement and humor. Parents/caregivers are encouraged to meet in a separate room across the hall for respite/quiet time and conversation.
What a wonderful variety of personalities with have in our friends! “ L” is a gregarious talker and always makes us laugh, “K” expresses thoughtful opinions on her speech tablet, “H” arrives early to help me set up for each meeting, “C” tells us about her work with horses, “S” loves Ringo Starr, “T” loves our meatballs. We love each friend and have been encouraged by the love we see them have for each other. In this place each person is appreciated as they are. I am especially touched when they pray for each other.
The backbone of SEEDS is the volunteers. We have a core group that have been faithful to the ministry and each have unique gifts: one organizes the snack, another the music, another the bible lesson, another the activity. We’ve learned to invite volunteers with a tap on the shoulder and we don’t limit the number of volunteers as it is also our goal to normalize disability within the congregation. A one to one assignment may be needed for a friend who needs extra attention, but we have moved towards an open group format to allow for free will friendships.
Activities can be filling Easter eggs for the church egg hunt, knotting a prayer blanket, collecting food for a local food bank, and of course crafts. We have been meeting on zoom since March with great attendance, have learned to adjust to this new challenge but hope to return to meeting in person when safe.
How can you start a disability ministry in your church?
1. Keep your door and heart open to God’s calling.
2. Have the support and approval of your church leaders.
3. Enlist assistance from organizations with established disability ministries.
4. Start small and persevere. You do not need a special degree- just a desire.
5. Make it your own, and have fun.
6. Build it and they will come!
It’s been 4 years since our first SEEDS gathering. Friendships have been formed, and we are learning that Jesus loves each of us as we are. He sees us and we are not going away. Is our church full? We’re working on it and looking forward to our next steps forward.
Georgette Stilwell was born and raised on Long Island, New York. After living and working in New York City, Georgette and her family moved to Perkasie, PA. in 1998 and presently attends Blooming Glen Mennonite Church in Perkasie where the SEEDS ministry began.
A graduate of Stony Brook University, Georgette has happily worked as a Physical Therapist for over 35 years, and has a master's degree in Public Health from Hunter College. Georgette and her husband Nick have two grown children, Emma and Julia. Disability ministry has been a passion for Georgette since the age of 16 when she volunteered at a Muscular Dystrophy camp during high school, and has been active in Joni and Friends Ministries for many years. She plans to attend a Wheels for the World international missions trip in the future to provide wheelchairs and spread the word of Jesus for those in third world countries with a disability. Increasing access and acceptance for those affected by disability is a lifelong passion.