By Madoline Markham

Photos contributed

Julie Brandrup admits that going anywhere with a child with a disability can be hard, so sometimes you just don’t go places. Likewise, although her family wanted to go to church, doing so was a challenge for all of them for years. But when her daughter Adele was in first grade, they heard about the Hearts and Hands ministry at Dawson Family of Faith and decided to try it out.

Typically the ministry assigns a child with special needs a buddy for their age-level classroom to accompany and assist them. But Adele did not always like having a buddy, so the ministry customized a setup for her—one of its hallmarks. As Julie says, “there is a lot of wisdom in how to provide what an individual needs. They don’t just offer one thing.” The ministry worked with the Sunday school teachers for a custom plan that would help Adele be part of the class in a way that helped Adele feel independent. That allowed Julie and her whole family—including her younger daughter—to become involved in the church.

“It makes you feel welcome and wanted, and it’s nice when you don’t feel like you are a hassle to be accommodated, that there is already a dedicated group of people who want you to be there,” Julie says. And that, she says, is a very good feeling; one that allowed her to relax a little and restore hope that attending church together might be possible for their family.

Hearts and Hands got its start in the early 2000s when a lay church member at Dawson developed a passion for families with special needs within the church and wanted to provide buddies for their children, so they could attend church as a family. Today the ministry serves about 10 kids, ranging in age from toddlers to young adults, and is always open to working with more.

Several years later, Ruth Ann Turner started serving as a buddy at the church, and she especially enjoyed working with a young girl with Angelman syndrome, which is a developmental disability. “She has such a spunky personality and the best laugh, and even though she doesn’t speak words, she communicates in so many other ways,” Ruth Ann explains.

After serving as a volunteer buddy on and off for about 10 years, Ruth Ann came on staff as the ministry’s coordinator in 2018, and that young girl with Angelman syndrome is now a young adult who still participates in the ministry each week. “It is a joy to serve our kids and families,” Ruth Ann says. “Most of our families face numerous challenges just doing daily life—going to the grocery store, taking kids to the dentist, making sure your child is getting what they need at school, and so on. Although parents learn over time how to navigate life with their child, they are not immune to the stares or comments they sometimes receive and the obstacles that they must find ways to overcome. Unfortunately, for families of kids with special needs, it sometimes feels easier to avoid spaces when they are not designed to be intentionally welcoming for them and their child.”

By contrast, she says, “it can be really helpful for a church to have someone on staff with experience working with these families because they can help identify where there might be barriers that other people don’t see because it’s not a challenge they’ve ever faced.” With a master’s degree in early childhood special education and 10 years of experience working with students with special needs in a variety of settings, most recently in Vestavia Hills City Schools, those barriers are ones she’s more than familiar with. That’s where Hearts and Hands comes in—to be a voice and support system for those families.

As Ruth Ann explains, “families [with special needs] spend a lot of energy advocating for themselves in the school system and medical setting, and a lot of times they are worn out. If there isn’t someone within the church to see them and recognize their family’s unique needs, it may be overwhelming or frustrating for them to have to ask for what they need to be a part of the community.”

Today, families with special needs at Dawson have access to two specially designed Hearts and Hands classrooms, one that was created in memory of Paul Myers by his family. Both rooms are equipped with rubber flooring, which cuts down on sound and offers a softer surface, and string lights hanging overhead that allow them to turn off fluorescent lights that can be overstimulating. A swing that hangs from the ceiling calms children with sensory needs, and books, sensory bins and noise and light-up toys have a similar effect on other children. You’ll also see all kinds of cars and animals and blocks in the room. Often as kids with developmental delays get older, their peers age out of pretend play, but that play can still be really important for them, both for their development as well as a great way to connect.

If a child has an accident after they arrive at church, they can go to either of these two Hearts and Hands rooms to get help and supplies to change them. If a child has a meltdown, they can take as long as they need to settle down in a safe space. These rooms not only provide a safe and comfortable environment to care for a child’s physical, social and emotional needs, but also serve as a community hub for the kids and their families. “Our families all feel welcome here and know that they always have a place to come for whatever they need,” Ruth Ann says. “Even when we don’t have kids or buddies using the rooms, they are available for families to come and watch a livestream of the service if they just need a break from the sanctuary or a quieter space.”

The church also has specially designated parking spots for Hearts and Hands families that make accessibility to the building easier for those with wheelchairs or for whom walking far is a challenge. This reserved parking allows their routine to be consistent from week to week. Once they are inside the building, the ministry sometimes uses a red wagon to help with transitions, which can be a challenge for some kids with disabilities.

Outside of Sunday mornings, Hearts and Hands supports children during special events held at the church by providing buddies as well as training teachers to help create a setting where a particular child with special needs can be successful and fully participate. They also offer social events throughout the year for families with special needs, especially moms, to give them opportunities to connect and build friendships.

Hearts and Hands isn’t just for Dawson members, either. The church welcomes children with special needs from the community to participate in KidLife, which is their version of vacation Bible school, each summer, as well as during their Sensory Friendly Candlelight service that provides hands-on activities, LED candles and no pressure to stay seated.

No matter the event at hand, Ruth Ann sees how a church setting allows for a depth of relationship between Hearts and Hands staff, volunteers and the families they serve.

“One of the great things about working with these families in a church setting is that the relationship can come first,” she says. “You have so much flexibility. If the child needs to be held and rocked, then that’s all you have to accomplish that day. There’s no pressure to get through certain tasks or assignments, and each child can move at their own pace, in both relationships and spiritual development.”

While Ruth Ann uses her background in special education to help lead the ministry, she always tells potential volunteers there is no special background or skill set required to serve as a volunteer. “You don’t have to be a speech therapist, and you don’t have to be a special ed teacher,” she says. “Really all you have to have is a willingness to serve and an open mind to learn how to love these kids well. Anyone who is willing to listen, learn and love can be equipped to serve with us.”

While each buddy relationship looks different, buddies often help a child understand and follow what the teacher says, giving them additional prompts as needed. Throughout their time together, buddies are checking in to see how a child is doing physically and watching body language and other cues to see what the child is communicating.

Today, Julie’s oldest daughter Adele serves as a buddy herself. At age 18, not only is serving with Hearts and Hands one of the highlights of Adele’s week, but she also  “is one of the best helpers for some of the kids because she has insight for what they need,” Julie says. “You can see God’s hand in it.”

Because of her own disability, Adele recognizes body language that children use that people who are depending on hearing don’t often pick up. She can take note when a child needs a break. She is also comfortable with medical tubing or equipment and a whiz at using a “Talker,” which is a voice output communication device often similar to an iPad but equipped with special communication software. In her role as a buddy, Adele understands the importance of access and that sometimes that means taking the long way for a wheelchair. She knows the complex paths—which require going outside and on certain sidewalks that are wide enough—through the church that children using wheelchairs must take. Given her years working with a buddy and serving as one herself, it’s like she’s a “double agent” of sorts, and that role brings a lot of richness to her life.

“Being involved like that is her form of worship,” Julie says.


Connect with Hearts & Hands

This ministry at Dawson Family of Faith serves ages from birth through young adulthood, and they accommodate all special needs.

Learn more about the ministry and volunteer opportunities: