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By Daniel J. Vance

Since 1982, Friendship Ministries of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has helped create a disability-friendly culture in thousands of churches and improve the lives of tens of thousands of adults and children with intellectual disabilities. It's an inter-denominational ministry focused on building faith and relationships in people with disabilities.

Its executive director, Nella Uitvlugt, first became involved with people with intellectual disabilities at age 15. “[My family] moved from Canada to Michigan then and the first person unconditionally welcoming me was the minister's daughter from next door, who had an intellectual disability,” said 58-year-old Uitvlugt in a telephone interview.

Uitvlugt went on to work in special education in public schools. Eventually, her son was diagnosed with a form of apraxia that affected his ability to speak. In 1995, she joined Friendship Ministries as executive director.

“Right now, many disability ministries focus on children and forget the adults, and we're known more for adult than child ministry,” she said. The organization has easy-to-use materials sensitive to different ages and learning levels, including leader guides, step-by-step instructions and creative activity ideas. The materials stress one-on-one, relationship-building pairings of congregation “mentors” to “friends” with intellectual disabilities.

As for children: “Many parents have turned their backs on church because someone in one years ago said something nasty about their child,” said Uitvlugt. “Recently, I began working with a (large) family that has three children with autism. They were rejected by three or four churches in 2010 and so now are doing our Friendship materials at home. They don't have a church. What's beautiful is that after starting Friendship materials as a family, their daughter with behaviors sat down at the piano and suddenly began perfectly playing one of the songs in our program.”

In helping perhaps 20,000 “friends” through its programs today, Friendship Ministries has participating churches from 65 Christian denominations, including Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, Lutheran, Church of God, Christian Reformed, and Roman Catholic.

Twenty years ago, Uitvlugt's church hardly had any exposure to people with intellectual disabilities. Now, it has 30 “friends” and at least 30 mentors, along with regularly attending associated families and caregivers. Many “friends” had never been to church before, she said.

She said, “What I enjoy most is seeing churches catch the vision and excitement of understanding these are God's people and should be included.”

Contact: danieljvance.com [Blue Valley Sod and Palmer Bus Service made this column possible.]