Florida UCC reaches out to members with intellectual, developmental disabilities
Twice a year, the Friendship Group at the United Church of Gainesville in Gainesville, Fla., spends an afternoon planting flowers at the entrance of the church’s courtyard. The group of eight adults, who each has an intellectual or developmental disability, gets down and dirty on their hands and knees to make the church a beautiful place for the rest of their congregation. Their spring flower planting session will take place on Sunday, May 3, with volunteers from the congregation coming out to help and support the group that has become a beloved cornerstone of the church’s ministry.
“The flower planting is a bit of work for them, but they really enjoy it, and every time we do it they understand it a bit more,” said Margaret Reynolds, a member of the church and coordinator of the Friendship Group. “This group is so proud of it and is always thrilled with their contribution and what they have done.”
United Church of Gainesville’s Friendship Group began 12 years ago, when Judy Parsons’ younger sister, who is developmentally disabled, visited the church. She noticed several of United Church’s members with needs similar to her own and wondered why there wasn’t a program made specifically for them. Parsons took the idea to the pastor, who reached out to the parents of some of the other disabled members, and the group got together to think about how the church could better relate to these members of their community.
“My sister said, ‘If you have special people in your church, you need to have a special Sunday school class,'” said Parsons. “She loves to come to Florida to visit the group now.”
The Friendship Group meets for an hour twice a month from September to May during regular worship services, and its lessons and activities are organized by volunteers like Reynolds and Parsons. The group enjoys a variety of activities including playing the hand chimes during holiday services, serving as greeters on Sundays, putting together Tooth Fairy packets for ACORN’s dental project, making bookmarkers for congregation members who are ill or going through a difficult time, and playing games like picture Bingo.
Originating with just three members, the group has continued to grow, and has also inspired the formation of a support group for parents of adult children with disabilities, which meets monthly to share ideas and discuss issues related to their children’s current and future needs. In 2014, the group launched an “As-Needed Volunteer Program” to match congregation members with certain skills and interests with Friendship Group members whose needs don’t allow them to participate in the group activities.
“If the group interaction isn’t able to work for their son or daughter, parents can find volunteers to help them do other things,” Parsons explained. “So those people aren’t being left out.”
Reynolds and Parsons both note how caring and supportive the Friendship Group members are of one another. They have become a tight-knit group over the past 12 years, and share in each other’s ups and downs. The group’s kindness and enthusiasm adds to the welcoming environment at the United Church of Gainesville and is an important part of the church’s community.
“It’s a joy to be with them, and any of us who have worked with the group have certainly had tons of benefits,” Reynolds said. “They are so kind and welcoming to people that it brings a spot of sunshine into everyone’s lives when they get to interact.”
“Our congregation has been committed to inclusivity and being an extravagantly-welcoming church,” Parsons adds. “This is one of the many ways that our programs back that up.”
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