Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Nan Britt, Director of Bethlehem Buddies at Bethlehem Church in Bethlehem, Georgia, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to discuss simple tools for starting a special needs ministry.


Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Nan Britt, Director of Bethlehem Buddies at Bethlehem Church in Bethlehem, Georgia, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to discuss simple tools for starting a special needs ministry.

Today, Mike, Gina and Kellen join you live on location from the brand-new Phase Family Center! Think combination learning center/childcare, co-working space and theatre where a church meets on the weekend. It’s new model for engaging the community. Check it out today at phasefamilycenter.com.

In the meantime, we are thrilled to welcome Nan Britt to the podcast. Nan directs the Bethlehem Buddies program that serves preschoolers through adults with special needs at Bethlehem Church

1. Tell us how Bethlehem Buddies began.

Nan: As a special education teacher, I wanted to put something in place for special needs families when we came to our church eight years ago. We didn’t have a separate space to begin with.

We created a form that parents of kids with special needs could fill out when they visited and recruited special buddy volunteers to pair up with a special needs child. We wanted to show families we were prepared for them when they visited.

Now, six years later, we do have classroom space. We have more of an organized system. We still have our buddy volunteers—30 scheduled per week.

We can relate to churches who have lots of resources or just a few. You can get something started even if you feel like you don’t have many resources.

2. It sounds like integration was your first strategy. What kind of questions did you ask on the initial form?

Nan: As a special education teacher, I knew how to ask questions in a respectful way. We ask things like:

Does your child have a learning difference?
A diagnosis?
Special needs?

In addition, we ask about your child’s interests and what they enjoy. We also ask what causes anxiety. Would they enjoy a large group setting, or are they more comfortable with a small group? Asking about a child’s interests is a big connector.

Kellen: I’m at a church plant, only a year and a half old. We haven’t started a special needs ministry yet. With that in mind–

3. What does training look like for people who haven’t come from a special education background?

Nan: Usually you can identify a volunteer within your church who has some level of experience as a teacher, therapist or parapro. Ask them to help you get started.

People are really willing to help, especially if you aren’t asking them to be in charge of the whole thing. They can help with training.

Volunteers who are interested in helping teenagers – it’s okay if they don’t have previous training in special ed. There are easy to tips to give them, like using timers to help a kid know how much time is left in an activity.

Ask—what are ideas that we can use within the context of our ministry as we’re working with kids who have autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, etc.? How can we keep them engaged?

Kellen: We have kids with special needs, but don’t have a ministry yet. Someone heard about one of our kids, Carlos, who has special needs and a high school buddy. This woman brought in a whole box of sensory items for Carlos, so now he gets his treasure box each week.

Nan: Each of our kids has a buddy bag with special items for the child.

–It may be a visual schedule for the day that they can check off so they know what’s going on and when mom and dad are coming back. [Check the Resources section below for examples!]
–Fidget toys for them to hold can help keep their attention focused.
–Using a timer is really practical. (Worship is 10 minutes. Let’s set our timer!)

Those are easy ideas that you can put in place next Sunday.

Provide a quick break for kids with special needs. Sometimes they need to get up and walk around for a few minutes before rejoining the group.

Gina: Each bag is personalized to the kid. Do you take that information captured on that original form to create the bag?

Nan: Yes, it’s very individualized. It really meets the need of what we do. Sometimes a child or young adult might be with a different buddy one Sunday, but the buddy bags provide the information and help the new buddy needs. The parent information form about the child is included in the buddy bag. There’s a tag on the bag that explains the schedule for the child—which service/room they go to, where they are picked up, etc.

Some kids may not have much in their buddy bag if they are easy going and flexible.

The buddy bags have been a great system for us, and prepare our buddies to know who they’re working with.

Gina: It’s so practical and portable.

Mike: My favorite thing is that it’s personal. As a parent, the fact that you would meet me, help me fill out a form about my child and find out what would make my child feel welcomed—that is huge.

I know that some families bring personal items from home for children to keep in their buddy bags.

This isn’t one size fits all. You have taken the personal level to a whole new level.

Gina: It moves beyond “how do we deal with your child” to “how do we engage them in a way that meets them right where they are.”

4. How does your process to recruit buddies compare with your regular volunteer recruitment?

Nan: For years, I was a volunteer. Since I came on staff, I have become more organized. In the past, we invited people personally to be a buddy. People can be intimidated because they feel like they don’t have the training to serve in special needs. I tell them that if they have the heart to do it, that’s what we need. We can give you the tools you need.

We have people with special needs from age 2 to 45 in our ministry. It’s a fun area to recruit for volunteers. Some older people feel like they can’t connect with kids or students, but they can connect with adults with special needs. We have a very broad range of volunteers, including preteens and teenagers.

The kid with special needs feels like a rock star when they have a 14-year-old boy as their buddy.

A volunteer who is intimidated by a whole small group might be happy to connect one-on-one.

Gina: The initial fear starting something new is that it’s more volunteers I have to recruit—and I already don’t have enough. But we’re creating more opportunity to engage someone who might not necessarily choose to be a small group leader or storyteller. It’s opening more opportunities for different people within your church.

Nan: You get excited to ask people to help with it, because you’re like, “you don’t even know what’s in store for you!” I feel that way because I’m so passionate about people with special needs. I just enjoy being around them. It’s fun to invite other people in to experience that themselves.

If you have 40 kids coming, you have to have 40 volunteers. Each month if we gain new families, it’s like, “okay Lord, we need more people.” It’s a good thing; it’s kind of a continual invite.

We do a buddy orientation. I don’t have a set training, but it happens once every couple months. Come see what it’s about, and then come and shadow in our room to see how we do things.

Gina: Do you find you have momentum in recruiting with that ask because existing volunteers are well equipped? If I see a buddy who has been well equipped and is enjoying his role, that makes me say, “I could do this.”

Nan: I hope that takes away some of the intimidation or nerves. This is doable.

Mike: I would think I would need specialized training to work with kids with special needs. But you do such a great job of setting people up to win that you really just need someone to be present and spend one-on-one time.

Nan: Do the hard work behind the scenes of knowing this kid and their interests. Equip their buddy bags. That sets up Sunday to be much simpler for the kid and buddy to have a great time together. That’s what we try to accomplish.

Gina: Earlier you mentioned middle school students as buddies. We want to engage them in serving at that phase. They have value to bring to the table. But we can assume they know what to do. If we’re not specific with what we need them to do, we may find them in a preschool room leaning against the wall on their cell phone. But giving them a buddy and the tools, now we’ve gotten really specific.

Nan: They follow the directions the best!

Kellen: The schedule in the bags is genius.

Nan: It’s for both the kid and the buddy. For preschoolers, it may be pictures of the schedule.

Kellen: Have your buddies already serving recruit other volunteers with a similar heart. Passion will breed passion. Send them out to find people to love on kids.

Nan: The first three years we had something in place for special needs, we had only one consistent family who came every week. We would go for months without having families with special needs visit. You may not see the fruit of it for awhile. But you have something in place so that parents know you are prepared for them.

If we had a buddy prepared and no special needs kids showed up, we would simply have the volunteer join in helping in the classroom.

Mike: This stretches past kids ministry into adulthood. You have a strategy that crosses all the boundaries. Thank you for doing that.

It started with your passion. You stepped up as a volunteer. It started with a form that made it personal. It started with a buddy and a bag. It’s grown from there.


If you don’t have a special needs ministry, consider preparing to welcome special needs family with three simple steps:

  1. Create a family form (check the Resources below)
  2. Gather basic materials for a buddy bag
  3. Recruit at least one buddy willing to be available to spend one-on-one time with a special needs kid when needed

Also consider: Is there a teacher, therapist or para pro in your church who could advise you on connecting with families and kids with special needs?