Change of Scenery
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Paul Weingartner served as director of the Center for the Blind for the past quarter century. Charlie T. Chivers, who co-founded Special Touch in 1982 with his wife, Debbie, now will manage the Center for the Blind. Special Touch Ministry, which became part of U.S. Missions in 1990, assists those with physical and intellectual disabilities.
In the short term, equipment will move to Wisconsin by the end of March. Down the road, Chivers must determine what technologies are best suited to carry on the ministry, find workers to operate the equipment and who can visually read braille, plus hire a full-time director, who will be based in Waupaca. Rather than AG employees, workers will be U.S. missionaries or missionary associates who raise their own support.
In addition, the Center for the Blind no longer will need to pay rent for its facilities. A new structure will be erected, with U.S. Missions backing, on the same lot where Special Touch is located.
“The time has come when the Center for the Blind needs to be shifted into a ministry that has the finances that can support a greater employment base, which will enable them to enter into a greater network,” says Malcolm Burleigh, executive director of U.S. Missions. “For decades, Special Touch Ministry has served people with disabilities and successfully raised awareness of that need throughout the nation.”
The National Center for the Blind has loaned Sunday School curriculum, Christian magazines, devotional literature, and braille materials — all at no cost.
“The Center for the Blind meshes with Special Touch,” Chivers says. “It makes sense for the services to continue under our ministry umbrella.” Chivers notes that in its early years, Special Touch Ministry served both the disabled and blind. After Weingartner took over leading the AG Center for the Blind, Special Touch ceased focusing intentionally on those who are sight-impaired.
The AG is the only evangelical denomination offering substantial resources to the blind. Ministry to or donations for the disabled and blind aren’t on the radar of many Christians.
“We believe transferring the Center for the Blind will enhance the ministry to a larger community that otherwise receives minimal exposure,” Burleigh says.
Financial challenges have existed for a long time for the low-profile Center for the Blind. Chivers expects to engage AG congregations in becoming more involved.
“We hope to put a strong emphasis on evangelism to the blind community,” Chivers says. He envisions teaching opportunities at various state schools for the blind, where students aged 5-18 are educated around the nation.
A commonality between Special Touch Ministry and Center for the Blind is that both work with people who often feel unwelcome at church worship services. As such, ministry to the two groups is a vast mission field. Nearly two-thirds of those served by the Center for the Blind have no church affiliation.
“We can equip the Church, but the Church must compel those who are disenfranchised and marginalized in society to come in,” Chivers says. “We can’t be ignoring this people group.”
A relaunch date for the Center for the Blind is to be determined. Also up in the air is how much volunteers can do for the ministry remotely via electronic communication.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Chivers says. “Those with knowledge who are capable and willing to serve will be invited to continue if it can be done long distance. We also hope current donors will keep giving.”
Three full-time appointed missionaries plus 14 full-time missionary associates already are part of Special Touch. The ministry has about 1,000 volunteers across the U.S., many of them involved specifically in local Summer Get Away programs. Special Touch is headquartered in the 1,600-square-foot lower level of Charlie and Debbie’s residence. Seven people drive there to work daily.
Special Touch Ministry is a fully endorsed U.S. Missions ministry, yet also a national faith-based nonprofit parachurch corporation.
“We are to the disability community what Teen Challenge is to the chemically dependent and what Chi Alpha Campus Ministries is to college students,” Chivers says.
Chivers is optimistic that contributions will remain from Speed the Light, Light for the Lost, and Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge.
In addition, Chivers says there must be an evaluation of what services to keep and what to drop.
“You can never put a dollar figure on a soul, but from a practical perspective, sometimes there must be change,” says the 65-year-old Chivers, who has no immediate retirement plans.
“I think U.S. Missions has made the best decision available to try to keep the ministry afloat,” says the 68-year-old Weingartner, who has been legally blind since birth.
“We are so grateful for Paul’s decades of service to the Center for the Blind,” says Wayne Huffman, senior director for U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries. “He and his team have been an asset to reaching the blind and visually impaired of our nation.”