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Teen Buddy Training

July 1, 2010

I will admit that I have been a skeptic of using teens as caregivers in children’s ministry environments.  I have seen the chaos that results from placing unscreened and inadequately trained teens in a room along with their friends, their cell phones, and …oh…a dozen preschoolers.  Having been a church children’s ministry volunteer who might spend as much time corralling unmanaged teen “helpers” as chasing three year olds, I never expected to one day be writing an article advocating the use of teens in any children’s ministry setting, let alone special needs.   But after seeing Briarwood Presbyterian Church’s (Birmingham, AL) Special Connections buddy program in action, I am a huge believer in the value teens can bring to children’s ministry and special needs inclusion.  Quite honestly, the most effective special needs buddies I have observed were teens!

While establishing good policies and procedures as well as teaching basic disability etiquette are a must, creating and leading the volunteers through a well-done training is crucial for the success of a teen staffed disability ministry.  Joel Wallace, Director of Briarwood’s Special Connections program has an excellent training program for teens.  While this post won’t do Joel’s presentation justice, below Joel shares highlights of the 90-minute teen buddy training session he conducts annually.  Joel wrote this piece to compliment the linked article: Using Teens as Special Needs Buddies.


A Biblical Model of Disability and Support

Four men lowered the paralyzed man on a mat down through the roof in order to reach Jesus.  The buddy system is modeled after this Bible story, with four rotating teen helpers sacrificially giving of themselves over the course of each month.  The teens together form the support team for one child, alternating Sundays assisting the child with special needs inside of church programming.  In the Bible story, the lives of the paralyzed man and his four helpers were changed forever.  The Special Connections buddy program desires a parallel experience of transformation and enlightenment for both the individual with special needs – and – his or her buddies.

Roles of a Buddy

Understanding what a buddy is (and is not) sets the stage for success between and individual with special needs and his or her paired helper.  We define the role of a buddy as a friend who freely shares his or her life with another person with no expectation of reward.”

Teen helpers work side-by-side the child, participating in a horizontal relationship, not a vertical association.  It is important to clearly distinguish that a buddy is:

a friend           not a babysitter

a role model   not a teacher

a partner         not a parent

an advocate    not an agent

The buddy may be like a big brother or sister but does not act as an authority in the child’s life.  Correction and discipline are not the call of a teen buddy.  When a teen buddy recognizes a potential need for correction , they are to enlist the help of a designated adult worker, familiar with the special needs ministry and the child involved.  The teen buddy is called to offer both encouragement and assistance to his or her paired child.

Attitudes of a Buddy

1)      Acceptance – Accept the child as he or she was created – perfectly in God’s image and for His glory.   Look beyond the effects of the disability and see the child’s heart which is completely able to receive and give love.

2)      Respect – Treat a person with a disability as highly as anyone else.  A persn with any diagnosis or special need is no less dignified, loved, or valued by God.  Draw attention to what a child can do rather than what he cannot do.

3)   Servant – Seeing this foremost as service to Christ, look for opportunities to meet various physical, social and spiritual needs of the child.  Part of the role of a buddy is in serving the child’s family and the body of Christ.

4)      Learner – Buddies consider themselves on a path to learning …looking for things that a person with a disability can teach them.  Buddies should learn the differences, unique qualities and communication styles of each person with special needs.

Special training should address:

  • Learning differences & learning styles
  • Effective strategies for common challenges
  • Misbehavior & misconceptions

Character Requirements of a Buddy

1)      Dependability –The person with a disability needs to know he can count on his or her buddy to be at church on the assigned Sunday and on time.  In addition, the buddy team (4 rotating teen helpers) needs to know that each participating buddy is a faithful team player.

2)      Flexibility – The life of a person with a disability can be unpredictable.  Trying to rigidly control situations, schedules, and behavior will only frustrate everyone.

3)      Sensitivity – Effective buddies will speak to and about the child in positive, caring and affirming ways.  Their actions and words will show respect and will emphasize the child first and the disability second.

4)      Confidentiality – A buddy respects the child’s parents’ choice of when and to whom to disclose details of their child’s disability.  Buddies understand that they are not to reveal their paired child’s identity to others nor discuss his or her medical condition and behavior with others.

As with the paralyzed man’s four friends in Luke 5, God can have a powerful impact through special needs buddies.  At the end of Luke’s account, the surrounding crowd was filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”  May your church experience the same!

Like this post or any of its content?  See the blog entry Rules for Repost.

Joel Wallace

Joel Wallace is director of the Special Connections Ministry for Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL.


To read other posts on volunteer training see:

Teen Helper Training

Special Needs Training for Church Greeters

Policies & Training for Teen Helpers

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