Church ‘floats’ a great idea: honoring Special Olympics

There’s an entry in Claremont’s upcoming Fourth of July parade that carries an important message: all special needs individuals deserve to thrive.

Granite Creek Community Church has built a float dedicated to the Special Olympics. The timing is perfect because—with the City of Trees serving as a host town for this year’s athletes—the spirit of the games has caught the imagination of Claremont residents.

The float is eye-catching, featuring sparkly red, white and blue garlands and an Olympic torch, its cellophane “flames” flickering in a draft from a hidden leaf-blower. The piece de resistance is a circular logo that at first blush resembles a peace sign. It is, in fact, the logo for the Special Olympics World Games, “painted” with brightly colored strips of tape applied by Granite Church members who are part of the Thrive program.

Thrive is all about adaptation, helping kids receive the church’s scriptural teachings while building life skills in a way that works for them. Thrive provides support for congregants who are physically or developmentally disabled or for whom the stimulus of a crowded service or bustling Sunday school class would prove overwhelming.

Whenever possible, special needs kids are integrated into Granite Creek’s regular Sunday school classes. Those who would benefit from a smaller program—with a modified Sunday school lesson and assistance like hand-over-hand help during art projects—are welcomed to the Thrive classroom during the 11 o’clock service.

There are usually four or five guests, the most regular of which is 14-year-old Cameron Maglio. It makes sense considering that Cameron, who has autism, was the inspiration for the program. His mom, Jennifer Maglio, who serves as graphic designer for Granite Creek, started the program 11 years ago.

How do you know whether kids like Cameron, who is non-verbal, are coming to learn about the Christian faith?

“It’s tough,” Ms. Maglio said. “I beat myself up every Sunday. But we’ve come to accept that they’re going to experience the word of God in their own way. He gives it to them. We’re just the vessels.”

And sometimes there are signs that her efforts, and those of volunteers including Ms. Maglio’s 16-year-old daughter McKenna, are sinking in. “A lot of times, Cameron will choose to listen to Bible songs instead of watching TV,” Ms. Maglio said.

When her patience is taxed and her way isn’t clear, Ms. Maglio draws strength from a Bible passage that epitomizes Thrive’s mission. Romans 8:28, says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Thrive has been a godsend for a number of people flummoxed about how to include their disabled family member in their faith activities. “So often, families don’t bring their child to church because they don’t want to put the church out,” Ms. Maglio said. “In some cases, they’ve even been told that they are not welcome.” 

A family interested in having their kid participate in Thrive generally calls Ms. Maglio. She then assesses them, learning about their strengths as well as their deficits.

Head pastor Josh Kapchinsky is proud that the church is home to Thrive. He says reaching out to disabled worshippers is “really our defining ministry. It’s part of our DNA.”

Ms. Maglio recently wanted to renovate the Thrive classroom, including the installation of chairs that bounce when you jiggle, as repetitive movements are soothing to those with autism. When they passed a collection plate, the congregation gave generously, and the Thrive kids got their improvements.

Obviously, Ms. Maglio approves of the affirming efforts of the Special Olympics. When she learned that Claremont would serve as a host town, she hoped to have the church host a reception for the athletes. Learning their schedules were booked, she did the next best thing.

Ms. Maglio and her husband Mike coordinate the church’s float-building effort. When they began brainstorming, she suggested that the entry celebrate the Special Olympics as well as the church’s own very special ministry.

Cameron and other Thrive participants will ride on the float if they feel up to it, or they can opt to ride in the air-conditioned truck pulling the entry. The Maglios are ready to play it by ear, because working with Thrive participants takes flexibility.

While parents of kids with developmental disabilities often feel they are alone, there are families everywhere dealing with similar challenges. Often, the Maglios find themselves ministering to people outside of church, giving advice or simply flashing an understanding smile. “We can’t help but greet other people, who might think they’re the only family with their kids flapping their wings at Target,” Ms. Maglio said.

Ms. Maglio is committed to education, not just for disabled individuals but for those unaccustomed to interacting with people with special needs. “When I see a child staring at my son, I’ll explain so that they’re not afraid. I try to dispel the myths,” she said.

Granite Creek has another humble aim for its parade appearance besides spreading special needs awareness. The float has won the Fourth of July committee’s prize for Best Musical Float nine years running. They wouldn’t mind nabbing a 10th.

—Sarah Torribio


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