Inspired by their children, a couple from Alliance Bible Fellowship continues to work within a ministry for those with special needs that they helped to create around seven years ago.
Anne Margaret Wright said that she and husband Ronny have five children, three of which they adopted who have Down syndrome. Soon the Wrights started to lead a home group for other families who had children with special needs, and later wanted to offer a ministry for those at Alliance Bible Fellowship.
“We wanted to do some practical things and also encourage the families because sometimes it’s hard if you haven’t been in that situation to really understand some of the challenges,” Anne Margaret Wright said. “We really wanted to come alongside families and say, ‘We understand how hard this is, but we also understand the beautiful blessings that God can do through your kids.’”
A church survey asked what special needs families needed, and Wright said the overwhelming response was respite care.
“If you have a child with … behavioral challenges or one that’s medically complicated, we can’t just call the neighbor teenager to come babysit,” Wright said. “It can be really challenging just to have a few hours away, but caregivers and parents need that.”
The ABF special needs ministry started offering respite nights about seven to eight times a year that allows for two and a half hours of monitored time for children or adults with special needs and their siblings. According to ABF, respite nights typically provide a motor area for the older kids, a playroom for the younger kids, a sensory area, crafts, a movie, a snack and a respite area for parents.
“Volunteers have as much fun as the kids do,” Wright said. “We play with the kids for a couple hours while caregivers can go out and have dinner, go talk or some go home and do laundry.”
Wright said the ministry averages 20 to 30 individuals with special needs on the respite nights with about the same number of volunteers. Norma Roark has served as a respite night volunteer for several years, and said she does so as a parent who has had a child with severe special needs.
“I used to think it was a treat just to walk to the mailbox at the end of my yard; I truly wished I had had a program when I needed it where I could safely leave my daughter for a couple of hours and have some me time,” Roark said.
Wright referred to the story in the Bible of the feeding of the 5,000 that is documented in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospel tells a story of how Jesus was able to use five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5,000 people.
“We bring our loaves and fishes to this ministry; God just does his thing and makes beautiful things out of it,” Wright said. “It’s his blessing and his glory that are really doing all of the amazing things that are happening. It’s just exciting to be a part of it.”
A high school student involved in the ministry had heard about an event called Joy Prom that started at a church in Charlotte, and ABF adopted the idea. Joy Prom is an event hosted at the church that allows teens and adults with special needs as well as their families to enjoy a night of dancing and fun. The church’s first Joy Prom took place in 2014.
The church hosts Joy Prom annually, and will be conducting its sixth year of the event from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on April 4. The group is also offering a dress and suit fitting from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on March 27, when attendees can try on donated dresses, suits, shirts and ties with the help of volunteers.
“It’s a full prom with all of the bells and whistles,” Wright said. “Often our folks with (intellectual or developmental disabilities) didn’t go to their prom. It just wasn’t something that was accommodating or helpful for them. We want to make it a really easy time for them to come with everything accessible and geared toward what they need. We also try to make it a really beautiful afternoon. It just sparkles.”
Attendees are pampered from the get-go, as ladies are given a tiara and are able to have their hair, makeup and nails done. Gentlemen receive a boutonniere and can have their shoes shined. Guests are welcomed down a red carpet with a cheer team on either side to greet them.
“Joy Prom is the greatest blessing ever,” Roark said. “Never will you see so many smiles in one place.”
While the first ABF Joy Prom hosted around 50 guests, the event now typically garners around 200 attendees. Wright said usually around 300 to 350 volunteers help to make the event a success.
Wright said volunteers help with directing traffic in the church parking lot, greeting guests and assisting with drop-off, registration, handing out boutonnieres and tiaras, assistance with the pamper stations, catering and clean up. The majority of the volunteers — about 250 people — serve as the cheer team as attendees walk down the red carpet and assist people in learning where to go, Wright said.
Wright said with each year of the Joy Prom, excitement in the community to help has grown.
Alliance Administrative Pastor Steve Collie advised that if people want to volunteer that they should sign up early, as they often run out of volunteer slots.
“Tell me another organization where you can have 400 volunteers sign up and still have people asking to join,” Collie said. “The spirit behind this is just incredibly moving. It is my favorite day of the year. I wouldn’t miss it.”