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

Bringing Some Sunshine to People with Disabilities

Heartland Christian Center is determined to make Jesus accessible to everyone -- especially families who have members with special needs.
When Sunshine Willingham was born 45 years ago, the doctors told her parents, Phil and Rhonda, that they would sign her death certificate and put her in an institution; she would never walk, never talk, and would be dead within two years — and nobody would have to know.

Sunshine was born with Down syndrome — Phil and Rhonda objected strongly to the doctors’ recommendation and brought their little girl home to love and to raise. And today, as a direct result of that decision, the plans for a $15 million, 48,000-square-foot facility, to be known as the Sunshine Center, are being finalized.


Phil and Rhonda have been the lead pastors of Heartland Christian Center in Valparaiso, Indiana, for more than 21 years. When they first came to the church, about 40 to 50 people attended. Today, approximately 1,500 people on four campuses call Heartland their home.

Phil Willingham says Sunshine has always been a part of their ministry, integrating her into ministry when they were evangelists and later, as pastors of churches. What’s more, she has far surpassed all of the doctors’ expectations for her — she functions mentally at about an 8- or 9-year-old level and is quite mobile. She also loves Jesus and is a joyful member of the church’s worship team.

Sunshine says her favorite part of going to church is seeing all her friends and worshipping.

“I like to be on stage with my mic and worshiping, knowing that my granny and Maw Maw in Alabama will be seeing me on stage,” Sunshine says with a laugh. She says she “feels great” when she gets to sing songs about Jesus because she loves Him.

And due to Sunshine, and the impact she has made on Phil, Rhonda, and others around her, no matter where the Willinghams have ministered, they’ve always included ministry to children and adults with special needs, including at Heartland.


Seven years ago, the church added a family life building with a focus on families. At that time, the thought of building the Sunshine Center, with the focus on reaching out to special needs families was planted in Phil’s mind. Then, two years ago, the church opened a biker church with the focus being on intentionally going after those in the biker culture.

“After we opened the biker church, God spoke to my heart — ‘What are you waiting on? If not now, when?’” Willingham says. “As a pastor, it seems like there’s never a ‘good time’ to spend millions of dollars on a new building, but God had my attention and that’s how the Sunshine Center got birthed.”

Although the church already has a number of ministries and resources for children and adults with special needs, Willingham says he didn’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel as to what the Sunshine Center should include, so he began to do some research on people who already have an established ministry to people with disabilities . . . and up popped Ability Tree International.


Joe Butler is an AGUSM missionary serving in Intercultural Ministries. Along with his wife, Jen, the couple co-founded Ability Tree International in 2009 — a ministry designed to impact the lives of families who have children and/or adults with special needs living at home as well as to help churches become intentional about ministering to families with special needs members.

The tagline on the Ability Tree website reads, “A Place for Everyone of Every Ability.” While the ministry’s motto is: “Helping churches make Jesus accessible.” And that was exactly what the Willinghams and Heartland Christian Center were looking for.

The Butlers have established their facility in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, as the Ability Tree International headquarters. Initially drawn to special needs ministry as their son, Micah, has ASD — autism spectrum disorder — the Butlers have seen their ministry grow from initially helping those in their community, to four Ability Tree locations (New Jersey, two in Florida, and the Arkansas headquarters), and are now in the process of expanding to become a national (and in the coming future, international) resource and consulting ministry.

“Heartland is one of four church partners in our beta-testing program,” Joe Butler says. “We are preparing to launch a new format for Ability Tree International where we help partner churches take their ministry to the next level — not just supporting our ministry, but getting involved and ministering to people with disabilities in their church and community.”

The Butlers ([email protected]) and the Ability Tree staff have created numerous proven resources that their program uses regularly — resources needed by any church starting a ministry to families who have members with disabilities.

“Most churches don’t have a special needs/disability pastor,” Butler says, “but now Ability Tree will be able to come alongside churches and provide ministry consultation. In addition to resources, we can offer guidance for churches on how to build a team, how to be better prepared to care for people with disabilities and their families, answer questions such as what does a respite program or after-school program look like, and much more.”

With templates and programming on its church hub, the Ability Tree has materials such as Artability curriculum, training videos, multiple in-take/release forms, monthly live online training meetings, and email/phone access for unexpected challenges that need to be addressed quickly — all of which helps take the pressure off of churches that are taking the journey into special needs ministry.

Willingham says he is planning on traveling to Arkansas to tour the Ability Tree’s facilities. While there he’ll also be able to observe the ministry in action, see the type of resources used in calming rooms, the impact of the multisensory learning rooms and games, and gain as much insight as he can into its operation prior to breaking ground on the Sunshine Center this fall.

“We don’t provide design services for the actual construction for buildings such as the Sunshine Center,” Butler says, “but we do have partners we can recommend who have the background and ability to create facilities for individuals with special needs.”


For individuals with special needs and their families, the Sunshine Center will offer a counseling office, calming room, four different large sensory rooms, and even training opportunities for Special Olympic athletes. But when making plans to do ministry on the scale that Heartland is pursuing, funding the programs, not to mention simply paying for the utilities and maintenance of the building, can be prohibitive for even larger congregations.

However, Heartland has solved the problem by simply following its own code — making the Sunshine Center inclusive. In addition to the “exclusive” rooms for families with special needs, the center will also offer athletic opportunities for the entire community. The center will include six basketball courts (which also can be used for volleyball and indoor soccer) for community leagues, a 3,300-square-foot Astro turf area for cross-fit and agility training, two full-length batting lanes, a pitching facility, a 24/7 workout/strength training area, and an indoor walking/jogging track — all things that area of Valparaiso currently doesn’t have ready access to.

“There are leagues and teams in our community that need space to practice, hold games, and play tournaments,” Willingham says. “And by building the center where the community can utilize the facilities, it creates income to offset the costs of maintaining the center while enabling us to offer free services and opportunities to families who have members with special needs.”

Willingham says that the center will be its own non-profit organization, but will be intentionally operated to hold true to the mission and vision of the church.

And Sunshine? She’s excited about the center. “I think kids will like basketball, running the track, and having fun in the special rooms built just for them (the sensory rooms),” she says.


The Sunshine Center is going to be a massive facility with a similar price tag, which leaves some asking, “Why do it?”

In addition to meeting a real need in the community and serving the needs of people with special needs, the center is also going to be meeting needs for the families of those with special needs. Willingham says that in their county alone, there are 19,000 people with special needs and more than 100,000 in the four-county area.

“A child with special needs is often one of several children in a family,” Willingham says. “However, simply due to the amount of care a special needs child (or adult) requires, his or her siblings can find themselves feeling neglected, being given adult responsibilities (caring for their brother or sister while the parents are working), or regularly having to place their sibling’s needs first. It’s not easy. The Sunshine Center will not only provide activities and a safe environment for individuals with special needs, but also give special needs families a ‘respite’ from the demands of constant care and vigilance and enable them to be involved in activities of their own.”

Willingham also notes that over the years it has become very clear to him that children and adults with special needs, no matter what their comprehension level, and their families, need to hear about Jesus — just as his daughter Sunshine has.

He explains that every person, including his daughter, has a sin nature. And even though she and many other people with special needs may never fully attain the mental capacity that would be considered an “age of accountability” for their actions, they can still experience the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives.

“I don’t want to go a day without His presence in me, why not give children and adults with special needs the benefit of having Jesus Christ in their lives (whether or not they reach ‘accountability’)?” Willingham states. “That peace, that joy that Christ can bring into their lives today — that’s a huge motivating factor in what we’re going to do and accomplish with this.”

And, of course, through the Sunshine Center, families with special needs are going to find a direct connection to the church — a church where those families with special needs won’t have to worry about feeling conspicuous, where each family member is accepted and welcomed, and where the church is geared to making sure the needs of every person with special needs are recognized and can be responded to as needed through trained volunteers and a center with resources designed specifically for helping individuals with special needs.

“We want our church to be inclusive,” Willingham explains, “where people with special needs are a part of the church body — not placed separately in another room — but worshipping, praying, and receiving from God with the rest of the congregation.”

“Every community is impacted by disability — age, ethnicity, socio-economic class are not barriers to disability,” Butler says. “Not every church is ready to do something on the scale that Heartland is — that’s something that has been building for 45 years. But the Church needs to do better to include and care for people with disability; it’s no longer a choice, it’s essential.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.