“Your son is Autistic.” With those four words, my life changed in an instant. Driving away from the clinic, I cried as I heard the pediatrician’s words over and over in my head. I wept for my son, who had been given a label that I didn’t fully understand. I pleaded with God to take it away. I prayed. Over the next number of years, I began to see and understand how deeply Autism would affect our family.
As our son grew older, the pain and difficulty of his diagnosis flavoured every part of our lives. Simple outings and events would start with joy and end with tears as our son had a meltdown in the grocery aisle or during a Sunday service. I clung to the words of Jeremiah 29:11-13: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” This verse became my mantra, my meditation, my lifeline. I knew that God would not make me walk this road alone.
It was not easy to trust him. Our marriage felt the strain of a child that demanded so much time, energy and emotion. Life filled up with school meetings, therapy sessions, meltdowns and medical care. Often, I felt like we were drowning under the responsibility and the difficulty. There were many times that the only thing I could do was pray. My faith was tested and my joy was weak. My husband and I so desperately craved and needed fellowship, worship and prayer. We needed to feel God’s strength and presence. We needed to be reminded that he would never leave us and forsake us in the middle of the daily struggles of raising a child that couldn’t speak and didn’t catch on to potty training.
We were always faithful church attenders, but church became a chore instead of a blessing. While other parents were able to drop off their children at Sunday School, our son stayed with us. We knew most volunteer teachers were just not trained to handle the challenges of a child with a disability. I wanted and needed to be in church, but the fidgeting of our son and his random outbursts left me unable to find refreshment. I felt empty and spiritually malnourished. I wanted to feel cared for and connected.
When Kyle was a young teen, we began to attend Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C. We wanted to see if this would be the church that would meet the needs of our family and our son. We knew they offered a ministry to special needs families called Imagine. The Imagine centre is a beautiful place, designed for special kids. The centre includes two large rooms with a bathroom and a smaller “calm room” attached to it. They have considered everything – an indoor trampoline for children to expend energy, heavy bean bag chairs that can be crawled under when children crave deep pressure and a large change table for families that need a space for changing adult children. The rooms are colourful, full of toys and the lighting is muted so as to not be overstimulating.
Saturated with support
During Imagine, children play and get to hear a Bible story in a way they may understand. These Bible lessons are taught with visuals, puppets, props and video. As parents, we were not just looking for a safe place for our child to stay during the service, we also wanted a place where he would hear the truth of God’s word and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Many children with varying needs come to Imagine. Whether it is Autism, Down's syndrome or other medical challenges, children, teens and adults are accepted and cared for by the volunteers working for this amazing ministry.
The volunteers are a loving group of men and women who faithfully serve with grace and compassion. The ratio of volunteers to children is high to ensure that children are safe and well cared for. In cases where children have greater medical issues, nurses and doctors have been recruited to provide support. When a need arises, a request is put forth and God provides a willing volunteer.
Coming into the Imagine room, the theme of this ministry is written on the wall: “. . . let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (John 3:18). Imagine is a program that seeks to be the hands and feet of Jesus to children who may not understand the words of Christ, but yet can feel the love of Christ. Through Imagine, Northview Church seeks to saturate families with support and encouragement. Events are offered during the year to pamper stressed out moms, give dads a night out and provide movie nights for siblings. In the ministry of Imagine, we have found the likeness of Christ. We have experienced unconditional love for our child and his sibling and unconditional support for us as parents.
Imagine has been a gift to us. Kyle loves church. He loves his Imagine program and the volunteers. He has been taught and encouraged to know Jesus and has developed a special relationship with his Saviour. Because of Imagine, my husband and I are able to come to church to worship together. We find rest and respite as we sit and pray and sing together. We refresh our souls and fill our minds and hearts with the words of Christ.
In my life’s journey, raising a child with Autism is, by far, the most difficult task God has given me. Yet I know that I do not raise my child alone. We have found a church that comes alongside us. A church that rejoices with us in our child’s uniqueness and cares for our son when he struggles. A church that displays Christ-likeness in their ministry to special needs families. Imagine is a ministry that has branded those words of Jeremiah into my heart. God knows the plans he has for me. He knew that I would mother a child that would test the very core of my faith. He knew I would not have to do it alone, and he knew that I would need a church that would care for my son, so he could take care of me. I sought Christ, and I found him in the ministry of Imagine.
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