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Sewickley opens arms wider for special-needs children

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

St. Stephen's Church parishioners always have welcomed members with special needs and their families with open arms, but with a new program in place, those arms are opening a little wider.

Working with funds from a private grant, the 1,200-member Anglican church in Sewickley has been able to buy an iPad, on which children with special needs can learn Bible lessons and play games while their parents are worshipping, said Robin Billings, of Edgeworth, children's ministry director.

Children can use the new iPad when they meet with their mentors in the church's special-needs classroom during services. Billings said with the new equipment, that time becomes a learning experience, and the children can better be included in church programming.

“So, it's not just baby-sitting,” Billings said.

The funds will be used to offer a night out for parents of children with special needs every three months. Qualified sitters will watch children so parents can go out.

Recruiting and training mentors for children with special needs also is part of the ministry, organized with help from church member Anna Conley of Edgeworth, who has an extensive background in teaching children with special needs and was hired part-time at the beginning of the year.

Elementary school and preschool children meet in groups during the two adult worship times and once in between on Sundays. Among them are children with more mild special needs, who, Billings said, do fine but could benefit from a mentor during the meetings.

Conley said there are about seven of those children and two children who need individualized care and have their own classroom. She said anyone who is interested in volunteering can contact her at the church at 412-741-1790.

All mentors will get together with Conley to receive training individualized to each child at the church and for the church's summer camp.

Conley said the goal is to have children participate in whatever way they can with the church.

In the music portion of the children's program, students from the special-needs classroom can listen and see the other children singing. Conley said they are working to integrate them gradually into that portion of the program.

Billings' son, Josh, has been mentoring a child for about two years, and Conley is mentoring a child who was adopted from Haiti by a local family.

At first, parents stayed with the child and did activities with him as the child got used to Conley and the environment.

The parents would leave for a few minutes at a time until gradually, the child was comfortable just working with Conley, and the parents could go to their own church service.

“It has been neat to see him go from being nervous and anxious to greeting me with a big smile every Sunday. The 30 minutes I spend with my ‘buddy' are some of my favorite moments each week,” she said.

Christina Meditch of Bell Acres, who runs a special-needs support group at the church and is a parent to two children with special needs, said St. Stephen's members love her children, and her children love them.

She is hoping to find a male mentor for her son.

“My kids participate where they can, and the staff at the church is always encouraging and supportive,” she said.

Conley said it's important for families to have the opportunity to go to church while knowing their children have something to go to.

Billings agreed.

“I have a relationship with a lot of the families, and I adore the kids,” she said.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406

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