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Serving Friends with Special Needs

Tags: From Canada, Story

By Amy Magwood 

People want to be seen, known for who they really are. It’s an innate longing inside the human heart. Jesus knew this. When He came to a village, He not only healed the sick - He saw them. He looked people in the eye and communicated their God-given dignity and value, even if society had rejected them.  

A recent short-term team had the opportunity to demonstrate this priority while serving at Sumy Grace Camp in eastern Ukraine.  

Sumy Grace Camp holds multiple camps each summer for kids, youth, and families, and one, in particular for Ukrainians with special needs. These campers of varying ages and abilities come with their caregivers and enjoy 10 days of activities, learning, and time outdoors.  

The camp’s priority for SEND’s short-term team this year was to help communicate respect and anticipation to special needs campers through building and maintaining an accessible camp. 

“Many places [in Ukraine] are not fit to care for those with special needs and for the disabled,” says team leader, John Paetkau. This presents an unwelcome atmosphere in public places and limits great life experiences. 

Building a Solution 

 With a great sense of purpose, the team began the process of building ramps all around the camp, facilitating a space for campers to live and move with freedom. Audrey Lawrence, one of the short-term workers, noted the difference between the country’s general accommodations and what the camp built for them. 

“The very few ramps we saw in the city, whether into restaurants or malls, had very steep slopes making it extremely difficult for anyone to wheel or push a wheelchair up them.  The ramp that our team built had a very gentle slope that made it easy for people to move up. Likewise, the handrail allowed people to pull their own chairs up and provided good support for those with walking difficulty. The campers’ ability to manage more independently increased confidence and affirmed dignity." 

Building Spiritual Pathways 

These ramps are tangible evidence that, at Sumy Grace Camp, those with special needs are seen and valued. They are welcome and their needs are accounted for. The hope is that communicating love through this simple act of improving ramps and accessibility will soften hearts towards the gospel for both campers and caregivers. Camp Director Michael Pimonenko notes the impact that camp has on the campers: 

“For those who attend, this time is a highlight of the year for them. The majority spend the year in their apartments in the city as it is very difficult to get out on the street...  To be out in nature, to rest and relax in the forest, is a huge blessing,” he says. “As a result of this ministry, and the ongoing ministries of Sumy Grace Church during the year, we have seen new people coming to church, receiving Christ, and growing in their faith.” 

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Everyone walks up or down ramps, but few realize the significance that improved accessibility has for those who are disabled. Just as Jesus valued and cared for those He interacted with, these ramps reveal to the special needs community that they are valuable, their needs matter, and their souls matter. 

Though the short-term team went to eastern Ukraine to build ramps, they left having made an impact far greater than nailing together wood; they left building the sense of worth for many, showing a community that God the Father sees them too. 

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