Our lives are full of great stories. Stories make learning much more interesting. Most of us in the special needs community have lots of stories to share. Some will make you laugh, others can make you cry.
A little church that started in a funeral home is now the largest Methodist church in the U.S. Luke 12:48 says “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return.”
This is where our story begins.
Like many of you, 25 years ago, we were a small church meeting in a school. The opportunity arose to serve a child with special needs and Matthew’s Ministry was launched. Over the years, Sunday programming was offered for toddlers through adults with intellectual and physical disabilities as well as a monthly respite event. Programs were added as our students got older and their needs changed.
Fast forward to 2009. Some of our participants were completing their public education at the age of 21 and found they had nowhere to go or nothing to do. They were on a 5-10 year waiting list for adult services. Many of them did not have skills for competitive employment and successful job training programs were rare. Parents were having to give up their careers or change their lifestyle to be stay-at-home parents and provide entertainment and activities for their adult children. Some of these adults were left at home alone to entertain themselves.
A few parents asked if their adult children could come in during the week to serve in volunteer roles in the church. With our Safe Gatherings policy, individuals with special needs are not allowed to be unsupervised while on campus. As you can imagine, this could get complicated.
A parent that had moved from Texas proposed that we bake cookies and deliver them to the staff once a week. Great idea, but we didn’t have a kitchen or the staff to cover this. During a discussion with a volunteer about this idea, she challenged me to do some research to find out what we needed to start a bakery and then to apply for a grant to start it. So, we researched, wrote a proposal, got approval from lead staff, wrote a grant and 3 months later had the grand opening of the Sonflower Bakery. Our bakery consisted of one part-time bakery staff person, 4-6 adults with special needs and a few dedicated volunteers that showed up when they could. We prepared and gave away approximately 3,000 cookies to the congregation that Grand Opening weekend of June 6, 2009. The bakery was an immediate success. Our products were sold in our café to the congregation and were used for events at the church. Orders kept coming and so did the request from parents in the community who wanted their adult children to serve in the bakery. As with any volunteer-run program, if your volunteers don’t show up you can’t complete your project.
By this time, we had become a multi-campus church. Parents were asking us to provide more opportunities for their adult children to participate in. We began helping with our backpack program which provided meals for inner city school children. When we could provide adequate supervision, we helped with other mission projects like these mats woven from plastic bags for homeless individuals.
The demand for programs for adults with special needs was growing and we felt challenged to offer more for our participants. More research was done, and visits made to programs around the country. We wrote a proposal for an adult education program, received approval and received another grant to start the Sonflower Adult Learning Program. The program accommodates 15 adult learners per day with one lead staff, 4 part-time support staff and many volunteers. The bakery is part of the curriculum as well as a daily devotion, art, music – which includes learning to play keyboards and a choir, yoga, hospitality support, assistance with large conference preparation and other church events. The learners attend staff chapel weekly and most recently we developed a theater program that is led by former Broadway actress.
The Sonflower program is a private pay program. A nominal fee is charged which helps to cover support staff salaries as well as a few special opportunities like off-campus trips for swimming, bowling, gym workouts, and site seeing in the city. The program is a well-balanced offering of educational, spiritual, social and potential job training opportunities.
The natural progression from the success of this program was to develop an apprentice program that would provide a job coach to train and supervise apprentices in various jobs in several of the ministry programs in the church. Another research project on job training programs was completed, a proposal written, and grant applied for and secured which led to the start of our employment program. Our job coach, along with ministry leaders, developed a curriculum for our café apprentices. Because of the limited amount of hours, the apprentices worked, their training lasted many months. We have hired 3 apprentices as part-time staff in our café. The success of the program has led to increased sales in the café. Staff and congregation members love the greetings and friendly service they receive from these fantastic employees. We also created a position with our communications department. The apprentice in this program prints all our bulletins, cuts and folds them as well as any additional brochures or inserts that are needed each week. This young man has now been hired as a part-time employee as well. We are currently looking into other ministry areas for opportunities to develop apprenticeships. What a joy it is to see how our church staff and congregation are serving alongside these amazing young people.
If the story of Sunflower Bakery is not enough evidence that those affected by disability need more employment opportunities, here are a few more articles to read that will help back that up: