Holiday clubs at church are so full of potential to be a significant part of growing in faith and in discipleship. I have been involved in holiday clubs, or VBS, weeks since I was a child and as soon as I was too old to be part of a group I began getting involved as a young helper, then leader. There are many memories for me, and songs, and memory verses that have stuck with me over the years from these weeks run by churches. From building a cardboard box ‘Luke Street’ together in a local village hall, to brilliant fun crafting, and that feeling of achievement when you could recite the memory verse on your own. So many stories explored, and so many key people who nurtured faith in me by showing and sharing their life of faith with me. I’ve also now seen then from the parent perspective too, and at the moment the experience is juggling being a parent/leader of a group/behind the scenes helper/encourager of my 2 young leaders!
Our church has been developing a more accessible holiday club over the last few years. Just small adjustments and significant yet small provision to enable all to come and get involved. I’m not by any means saying we’re finished and feel we’ve got it right yet, after all each child is unique and their needs and our adjustments for them change and grow as we welcome them.
Our most fundamental resource is our volunteers. We happen to have a number who already have a range of knowledge and experience of physical and hidden disabilities. Matching the right group leader to each group really makes a difference. That match may depend on a particular area of experience and expertise, but it may equally depend on personality and leadership style, or on who is familiar for the child. We have also started to regularly have volunteers assigned one to one with a child who needs that support, who then becomes part of the group the child is assigned to as an extra leader especially there for that child. This has worked so well for some children, allowing them to participate at their own pace. And this year we will be welcoming a Mum to spend part of the week with us doing just that – how exciting to be able to share fun and faith with that child and their parent.
We have begun to designate a specific area of the church building as a calming space, a retreat which is always available during the holiday club week. The last few years it has been in a corner near to the groups with children we know in advance might benefit from it. We had large floor cushions, a box with playdough, bubbles, a couple of quiet games and some sensory equipment. To make it feel and look like a space in its own right we used a play parachute to form a rainbow canopy over the corner and it felt very much like a safe space. The colours of the parachute fabric filtered the brightness of the church lighting, and there was space to lie down and take time out from the hustle and noise of the larger group. This year we will be using a side room, because of the particular needs of a child we will be welcoming. For him it will be important to be in a separate space when he needs that calm time.
Practical things—do we have an accessible toilet; which door is it easier to have everyone come into the craft halls through; do we need safety gates on any entrances or exits, do we need people whose job it is to be aware of exits in case we have children who bolt; have we checked and double checked allergies; have we had a chat with parents to make sure we have understood the information on the health form and to talk through with them (the experts) how we can best adjust things, or support their child during the week? I would like to think about using an ‘all about me’ sheet that children can fill in before they come—a space to share with their group leader some of the things they love to do, are really good at, as well as things they like help with or are scared by. It would be lovely to think we might be better equipped to celebrate their strengths and interests during the week as well as managing the practicalities of getting them through the week. Would an advance visit to the building help; would meeting or having a conversation with the group leader help; would a visual timetable of the holiday club day help?
As well as these we have been slowly collecting a cupboard of go-to fidgets; calming sensory cuddlies (a lot of which have been handmade by volunteers, for example a fluffy spiral made with clever crochet using fluffy wool that can be scrunched, wrapped around fingers and is so tactile) and activities (for example a donated box of lego); and sensory equipment such as ear defenders so they are available.
Being intentional about becoming more able to properly welcome and enable all children to participate has enabled so many things to grow—our team of volunteers; the relationship between the community of families here and the church; the faith of children and our own faith; and I suspect our collective Christ-likeness has grown too as the body is more complete, more as it is called and loved to be with each new person who is able to come into the life of the family.