This sports-based disability ministry wants kids with special needs to feel Brave
by Gracia Lee // July 7, 2022, 11:58 pm
Senior Pastor of 3:16 Church Norman Ng and his wife, Pastor Debbie, were inspired to do something for the special needs community after learning that only 25 out of 600 churches in Singapore have a special needs ministry. Photo by Issy Shoots.
“Do you want some garlic bread?”
A rosy-cheeked nine-year-old boy, whose name I later learn is Joshua, greets me warmly at the entrance, holding up a small paper plate with four strips of bread balanced on it.
The room quickly fills with the sound of thumping fists, laughter and words of encouragement.
I politely decline, and he scampers off to offer the bread to some of the 65 others who have gathered at City On A Hill, a cosy event space in KAP Mall, on this Sunday morning.
It is 9.30am, a precious time when most would be sleeping in, but the place bustles with energy as the adults engage in warm chatter over coffee and the children laugh and play with one another, some squealing in excitement.
A woman who is visually impaired lays out baking paper in trays for the children to bake cookies. Another volunteer with cerebral palsy feeds ice-cream to a participant in a wheelchair.
They are all gathered for Brave Club, a sports-based activity for children with special needs. Started last December by 3:16 Church, it meets monthly for activities like dancing and soccer.
A platform for like-minded families
Today’s activity is boxing, and when a volunteer announces that the session will begin in five minutes, a young boy with autism claps his hands excitedly and bounces up and down in his chair as his mother helps him don a pair of bright red boxing gloves.
Over the next hour the children, most of whom have autism, learn to throw jabs, cross jabs, undercuts and hooks with the help of their parents and volunteers. The room quickly fills with the sound of thumping fists, laughter and words of encouragement.
Kaizer, a bubbly and energetic 11-year-old who has autism, climbs onto the stage, intent on helping to demonstrate some moves.
“I get to show, I get to teach,” he later tells a volunteer.
Outside the room where the activity is going on, his mother, Jasmine Neo, tells me that her son has been attending Brave Club regularly since she came to know of it last Christmas through a Facebook post.
“It’s helpful for like-minded families to come together to share and let out all the frustration we feel inside.”
“For kids with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), you can’t expect them to be sitting and listening to theory, so these interactive activities are very good,” she says, adding that it also provides a platform for Kaizer to socialise with other children as he is an only child.
Even though he had a brief run-in with another participant during the previous session, he still expressed a strong desire to attend today’s activity. “He really enjoys it,” says Jasmine.
Attending these sessions has been a form of respite for her as well. As Kaizer does not need much close watching, she waits for him outside and chats with other caregivers over a cup of coffee or ice-cream, which is provided free-of-charge.
“As a parent with a child with special needs, it’s not like you can talk to anyone on the street and they can relate to you and what you’re saying. So it’s helpful that there is a platform for like-minded families to come together to share and let out all the frustration that we feel inside,” she says.
All you need is love
While looking on as the children learn boxing, Senior Pastor of 3:16 Church Norman Ng shares that he and his wife, Pastor Debbie, were inspired to do something for the special needs community after learning that only 25 out of 600 churches in Singapore have a special needs ministry.
This statistic was provided by the Koinonia Inclusion Network, which advocates for the inclusion of people with special needs and disabilities in churches.
“We felt compelled to do something about it and to take action in whatever small ways we can,” says Pastor Norman. The couple are also behind The Heartbeat Project, which champions women and children in vulnerable positions.
They were undeterred by the fact that they had no prior experience in reaching out to children with special needs.
“We didn’t want to take the path where we feel totally equipped or certified before we made a move, because given the amount of things that we need to do in ministry, that will never happen,” says Pastor Norman frankly.
Pastor Debbie recounts how a mother who attended Brave Club for the first time commended them for their efforts, saying: “Really, all you need is love and we can feel it.”
Says Pastor Debbie: “That was really an encouragement. If we wait until we are super prepared by going for all the courses and certifications, by the time that happens we would have missed out on so many opportunities to be a blessing to others.”
Nevertheless, the couple recognised the need to do their “due diligence” and enlisted the help of friends who are in the special needs community.
They have forged bonds of friendship with both the children and their parents.
One of their suggestions was to have a dedicated room where children can go to calm down should they have a meltdown. “That has been very helpful,” says Pastor Norman.
With each session, their team of volunteers has learnt how to interact with children with special needs more meaningfully, and have also forged bonds of friendship with both the children and their parents.
They have also begun to conduct visitations to some of these families’ homes every month to offer prayer and practical help.
“While it’s always helpful to be equipped and trained, a bulk of it comes from having a heart to minister and being sensitive, careful and patient. Everybody can play a part if they set aside the time and effort to do so,” says Pastor Norman.
Gritty yet vulnerable
But it is not a one-way street. As the volunteers served these children over the past few months, they too have been immensely blessed by them.
“They have such a good heart and they have so much tenacity.”
After the boxing activity, it is revealed that today is the 32nd birthday of Ivan Low, one of the volunteers who helped anchor the day’s programme. The children break out in a spirited “happy birthday” song, with one singing enthusiastically and unabashedly into the microphone.
Later on, a girl with cerebral palsy determinedly gets up from her wheelchair and, with the support of two volunteers, walks across the room to where Ivan is sitting to give him a personal birthday wish.
“Wow, what a blessing,” Ivan tells me. “They have such a good heart and they have so much tenacity. I wish I had more of their grit to be more resilient, to be hardy yet soft on the inside.”
Speaking from experience, Chris Lim, a father of two sons aged nine and 11 with autism, agrees that there is much we can learn from those with special needs.
He says: “Having a child with special needs is not easy. It’s harder than usual and sometimes it can be downright difficult. But at the same time, they also help you to become a better person.”
Apart from refining his patience, his children have taught him endurance and simple faith, he elaborates. For example, his son once told him: “God says I cannot do this, so I will not.”
Says Chris: “I’m like, ‘Wah, serious ah? You won’t question?’ It’s heartwarming seeing them grow each and every moment.”
Pointing to 1 Corinthians 12:22, which says that those who seem weaker are indispensable, Pastor Norman says that embracing those with special needs empowers the body of Christ: “There’s a part of us not working if we don’t embrace them.”
Pastor Norman tells volunteers at every session that they are not just volunteers, but worship leaders.
This is why Brave Club actively welcomes volunteers with special needs, such as Xiu Zhen, a member of 3:16 Church who has cerebral palsy, and Isabelle Lim, a professional photographer who is profoundly deaf.
Pastor Debbie recounts the time when a volunteer, who did not know sign language, struggled to ask Isabelle if she wanted a cup of coffee. Seeing this, Xiu Zhen stepped in to translate and got the message across to Isabelle in sign language.
“In that moment we really saw how we are different parts of the body and no one is lesser because we play different roles,” says Pastor Debbie.
As a regular volunteer, Xiu Zhen, 38, looks out specifically for one particular participant with cerebral palsy. “I’m glad that she really enjoys coming to Brave Club. We help one another out,” she says, adding that she also enjoys the food and fellowship.
At a debrief at the end of the two-hour programme, Pastor Norman repeats what he tells volunteers at every session: They are not just volunteers, but worship leaders.
This he draws from Isaiah 1:14-17, where God defines true worship as doing good to others and seeking justice for the vulnerable and marginalised.
He says: “When we sing songs and raise our hands in church, that’s one aspect of worship. But what we experience in church has to lead to an expression like this. This is true worship.”
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