Jody Mlynek and her family stopped going to church together for two years. When friends questioned their absence, her answer was honest and simple: We don't fit in."
Mlynek, 44, torn between the demands of an autistic child and a lack of church resources, chose to turn her pain into a powerful classroom ministry called Logan's Friends. The ministry is named after her son who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
"As Christians, we feel it is important for us to attend church every week, but as Logan got older, it was more challenging as to where to put him. He didn't fit into age-appropriate classrooms. He wasn't able to do what the other children were doing. He couldn't follow directions or participate in crafts or Bible stories."
Five years ago, the normal noise level in Logan's church classroom became emotionally and neurologically stressing to him, as it would be to most children with autism. Overwhelmed, he started throwing tantrums and the Mlyneks were repeatedly called out of church services to deal with their son.
Once, as Jody Mlynek peeked into Logan's classroom, she observed the staff ignoring her son. They simply didn't know what to do with him.
Another Sunday Logan experienced a total meltdown in class.
"At that point, we were told to come and get him, and we had nowhere else to go," Mlynek said. "We stopped going to church as a complete family for two years. Sometimes my husband, Don, would take our other child, Connor, to church; sometimes I would take him."
During those two years, Mlynek spoke to other mothers who had special-needs children. They all expressed grief and disappointment with their churches, feeling that they didn't fit in. Some families were asked to stay away from their churches because of their children's behavior. The mothers' stories broke Mlynek's heart.
"No family should ever be turned away from church because of their children's needs," she said. "It took three years for Logan's Friends to come together. The Lord gave me one piece at a time."
Patty Moore, mother of 8-year-old Kaila who has Down's syndrome, said Logan's Friends is a positive experience. Kaila's special-needs class is a safety net and blessing, and Moore can enjoy church services without worrying about her daughter.
After church, "the children are filled with joy," Moore said, "and the parents are filled with the Word of God. It doesn't get much better than that!"
Running on empty
Mlynek believes the increase in diagnoses of special-needs children is creating a unique opportunity for ministry.
According to a government study released Feb. 9, one in every 150 children is diagnosed with autism, a higher ratio than the 1 in 166 previously thought.
"This is a need that is not going to go away," she said.
Logan's Friends serves families from all walks of life that are caring for children with myriad disabilities.
The ministry provides Christian support, encouragement, resources, information and fellowship for parents and siblings of special-needs children.
"These parents especially need the church," Mlynek said. "They are running on empty sometimes. They need to be encouraged and filled up."
Parents seek churches with special-needs classrooms just for their kids, since many cannot mainstream in regular classes. Logan's Friends' two-pronged approach ministers to the families of special-needs children, but also contacts churches.
"Every church needs its own brand of special-needs ministry," Mlynek said. "It's important from the in-reach point of view, ministering to members within their own congregation, but also as outreach, inviting the community to find a home. We are required to show the love of Jesus to all people."
Mlynek explained that parents of special-needs children find enough rejection in the world. They get "weird looks."
"People think they are bad parents because of their children's tantrums," she said. "The church can show the love of Christ to these families in a meaningful way because the families experience such isolation. It's incredible!"
Logan's Friends' church-ready materials encourage large and small churches to develop their own special-needs program without draining limited resources. The ministry offers guidance for structuring a classroom, effective ways to recruit volunteers, disability awareness, sensitivity training for staff and volunteers, behavior management training, and a special-needs Bible curriculum.
A model that works
Nearly two dozen families now participate in Logan's Friends social events, and the special-needs classroom held at the North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. typically ministers to 12 to 15 children. About a dozen volunteers work with the children, and Mlynek said more than 30 people responded to her recent request for more volunteers.
Several other churches have created the special-needs children's classrooms. Mlynek encourages churches to start a class for first through sixth grades, with children ages 5 to 13 or slightly older.
"We try to make it as easy and pain-free as possible," Mlynek said. "We say, 'Take this model and implement it in your church, and you will find that volunteers will be easy to find.' People will come out of the woodwork, and special-needs families are already proactive, involved people."
Mlynek's new Web site is linked to other special-needs sites. She has heard from concerned parents in other local churches and as far away as Canada.
Logan, now 8, is still nonverbal. Mlynek is writing a book about her experiences as his mother, and her Web site says she wants others' stories for possible inclusion in her book.
"I want to help people see that God has a purpose for these kids," Mlynek said. "Instead of rejecting them, we need to open our arms and learn something valuable from them. God's heart is full of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance, and He has a special purpose here on this earth for these sweet, loving kids.
"Open your heart just a little bit, and they'll reach in and steal it!"
For more information about Logan's Friends, call (760) 207-4880, visit logansfriends.org or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.