As a parent of a child with exceptional needs, Captain Tracy Savage, corps officer at St. Thomas Citadel and Community Ministries, Ont., set out to answer one question: “How do we, as pastors, allow for all families to worship with us in a way that is supportive and easy?”

Attending regular services and engaging in church activities can present unique challenges for families with children who experience additional needs. Recognizing this struggle within her congregation and her own family, Captain Savage led the creation of a sensory room and supportive programming at the corps.

Initially intended to give children and their parents a safe and calming place to go during Sunday worship, the sensory room had an unintentional positive effect on the community—it opened the door to a more understanding church, helped answer difficult questions and created a sense of unity.

Supporting Families

In December 2022, St. Thomas Citadel received funding through home missions to implement a sensory room at the church, repurposing unused space within the building to create a room that was quiet, calming and open to anyone who needed it.

Equipped with sensory lights, comfortable seating, a swing and other activities, the sensory room has become a sanctuary for children with exceptional needs. It is a comfortable space free from excessive noise and stimulation. It also supports families who want to know that their child is safe while remaining connected to the service. The room features a speaker, enabling parents or support workers to listen to the worship service while accompanying their child or client.

Beyond its use on Sundays, the sensory room has been integrated into Thursday youth programming. Children from the congregation and the community utilize the space if they need somewhere quiet to go while programs run.

“Many people don’t know we have this room at the corps,” says Captain Savage. “But every now and then we find kids just sitting in there because it’s so calming. They love it in there. It’s a space where they can sit and relax before going back to their program.”

St. Thomas Citadel also implemented “sensory bins” as part of their programming. For children who may require additional support during services, or who struggle in a typical Sunday school setting, these sensory bins offer an alternative method of delivering Sunday school lessons.

“The bins contain sensory tasks and activities related to Bible stories,” explains Captain Savage. For example, children can interact with animal toys and books that tell the story of Noah’s Ark, allowing them to learn comfortably at their own pace. “Anyone can take a bin and use it during church. It’s inexpensive and not messy, and it ensures they are learning in a way they understand.”

A Grateful Family

Jodie Boyd attends St. Thomas Citadel and is a mother of three children, two of whom have exceptional needs.

Boyd explains that lights, noises and people at church can be overwhelming for her nine-year-old daughter, Alison, who requires careful supervision and support to safely navigate her surroundings. Her inclination to run, often toward the emergency exit behind the pulpit, added to the concern. “When she feels upset or dysregulated, having a place where she can go alone to calm down really supports Alison and helps maintain her dignity,” says Boyd.

Beyond the positive impact on Alison’s well-being, the sensory room has been a valuable support for the family. “It has been a huge ministry for my husband, who doesn’t regularly attend church. He is used to Alison being excluded from things. But seeing her embraced just as she is, even when struggling, truly shows the love of Jesus in action,” says Boyd.

And for Boyd, the sensory room brings comfort and reassurance in knowing that Alison has a safe environment where she can experience Christ in her own unique way, and that she is loved and accepted at the church. “It’s been an opportunity to educate and challenge preconceived ideas that others may have about kids with disabilities,” she says.

Understanding and Unity

Captain Savage admits that, at first, there was a lack of understanding within the congregation about how to best support families who have children with exceptional needs. The sensory room has played a vital role in promoting understanding and fostering unity within the congregation. When it was first implemented, it opened conversations that were new to some people. It was a teaching moment for congregation members and corps leaders to better understand each other.

“I am learning,” says Captain Savage. “I have some wonderful parents here that are learning as well. We’re all working together on this.”

The corps, along with the dedicated parents, has collectively worked toward educating others and creating an environment where all children feel accepted. By addressing the unique challenges faced by these families, the corps has not only made it easier for them to attend church services but has offered the same opportunities for everyone to participate in Army life—including proudly enrolling two children with exceptional needs as junior soldiers.

“With my son having exceptional needs, it has taught me about inclusivity,” says Captain Savage. “Everybody wants their child to have friends and to feel that they are wanted and welcome at church. We don’t all have to be the same to hear about Jesus and worship him.”

This is the final article in a four-part serious on accessibility in the church. To read more articles in this series, visit:

Acting on Accessibility: New accessibility committee at Winnipeg's Heritage Park Temple helps meet unique human needs.

A Theology of Welcome: St. John's Citadel, N.L., reaches out to the community with accessible programming.

Accessing Hope: In Trail, B.C., The Salvation Army provides dignity through accessible employment and service.

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On Thursday, November 2, 2023, Truell Landy said:

Thank you for this article. I have a friend whose church is seeking a solution to her need for support for her grandson during church service. I will share this with her. Prayers for her Sandra, please.

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