We have updated our Privacy Policy to provide you a better online experience.

Filling the Special Needs Gap

Champions Club at Canyon Hills AG ministers to developmentally disabled children.

Beth Orton works for an office furniture company, but the salary doesn’t compare to the compensation she receives from the special needs ministry at Canyon Hills Assembly of God in Bakersfield, California.

Each Sunday, Orton collects enough hugs, smiles, and high fives that she chokes up describing her work as a volunteer with Champions Club. Launched in 2013, the ministry offers Bible lessons and activities for kids with developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome.

“It’s great when you see kids read a Bible verse and they turn and look to you for positive reinforcement and you’re there to provide that,” says Orton, a mother of three and grandmother of one. “You can make a connection with a child that is not wired the way your children are.”

As the coordinator of volunteers, Orton enjoys seeing breakthroughs with youngsters like Joshua, who after two years in the program discarded the headphones he once used to block out sounds; and Arianna, who now attends a regular Sunday School class, thanks to a volunteer’s one-on-one attention.

Canyon Hills Executive Pastor Steve Vinson says one of the motivations for the ministry is that many families feel as though they aren’t welcome in church if they have a developmentally disabled child.

“When we shared the idea with our congregation, we discovered a lot of people had similar experiences, like being asked to leave, or churches admitting they weren’t equipped to handle kids like that,” Vinson says.

The Bakersfield church invested a considerable sum in building a separate 3,200-square-foot facility for its Champions Club. The building is equipped with such features as an oversized keyboard kids can play with their feet, black lights for its sensory room, and large rockers with heavy blankets.

The building is divided into four rooms: a worship area, a play room, a sensory room, and an education center where kids learn Bible stories and sign language. Vinson says special needs students respond well to signing because it keeps their attention and helps them learn Scripture.

“The playroom is the kids’ favorite,” says Vinson. “We have all types of gymnastic equipment, big swings, and tubes for them to use. We go from room to room, for a half hour in each. It’s a two-hour window, so when parents drop them off they know their kids will have a great experience.”

It’s one of Orton’s favorite times, too. The longtime church member loves children and feels she makes a difference in the lives of the 12 to 15 participants who come each week.

“Our kids hear the Bible stories,” Orton says. “We hope and pray they are being reinforced at home.”

Outside the church, Vinson says Champions Club is also making an impression.

“It’s positioned us as helping the community,” the executive pastor says. “It’s appreciated by people who have this need.” 

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.