"Many weeks I sat in awe at the ways in which resourcing was happening just by providing a safe place for parents to share together," reflected former Associate Pastor Dawn Ranck Hower. "My role was simply to provide the space, open with prayer, and then I sat back and learned."
It all started when some families at Plains Mennonite Church (Lansdale, PA) had children who received autism spectrum diagnoses. They reached out to the pastors for support. The pastors saw the need for an autism support group and invited other parents and caregivers from the local community. Catherine Schadler Heller, M.Ed., shared her knowledge and expertise around topics chosen by the group. That was helpful, but the pastors soon realized that the greatest resource for parents was meeting with other parents to talk and share ideas. For example, one parent would say, "My son hates zippers on his pants, and I found pants with an elastic waist that he likes at . . ." Another parent would say, "My son is exactly the same," and would write down the name of the store. That was 12 years ago, and today our Autism Support Group has reached over 70 households who stay connected through monthly meetings, email, and a private social media site.
The congregation became more aware of appropriate language, individual behaviors, and the need for acceptance of persons with disabilities. Local professionals provided insight to the congregation during the adult Sunday school hour on autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory differences, and other disabilities. As a congregation, "we realized that we could do more within our building, park, and property to include those who had been unintentionally placed on the margins," said Heather Gingrich, current facilitator of the Autism Support group.
In 2020, Plains was fortunate to receive an estate gift from congregational members specified for "children and youth of Plains Mennonite Church." A church committee was formed to brainstorm how to use this gift and decided to plan an inclusive playground and increase the accessibility of Plains' eleven-acre park. "We decided to include a crucial step in planning and designing the playground 'with' rather than 'for' the families in our community. So, we interviewed families in the Autism Support group to learn what they felt was most important to include in a playground," said Gingrich. The responses included shade, a rubberized surface, equipment inclusive for a wide age range, equipment that offers a choice for social interaction or sensory breaks, and a fence to prevent eloping.
The first Barrier Free Grant from Anabaptist Disability Network (ADN) helped pave an accessibility path through the park and form an entrance for the yet-to-be-built inclusive playground. A second Barrier Free Grant of $500 plus donations and grants from local businesses, community members, and congregants made the dream of a "playground for all" possible. The inclusive playground allows children of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to come and play on equipment, encouraging fun and entertainment for all. Gingrich adds, "We look forward to welcoming our neighbors and community!"
Heather Gingrich has been the facilitator for the Autism Support Group for the past eight years. She helps with the church's F.A.N. Club (Fun Activity Night) for adults with intellectual disabilities and is Plains Mennonite Church's administrator. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and making soap.
Beverly Miller is the interim minister of pastoral care at Plains Mennonite Church while the lead pastor, Mike Derstine is on sabbatical. She has authored A Mennonite Church in Norristown (2015) and co-authored How to Change the World: One Penny at a Time, the story of Claude Good and the Worm Project (2021).