Beyond Accessibility: Gail Ewell’s Vision for Church Inclusivity

Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. Today we’re talking with Gail Ewell a leader at Bay Area Christian Church and Hope Technology School.

Gail’s story is one of personal struggle and triumph. As a mother of children with special needs, she faced significant challenges in attending church. Her experiences shed light on the isolation and strain that families with special needs often endure. It was through these personal trials that Gail’s passion for inclusivity within the church was ignited.

Tune in as Gail shares how the simple step of a church extending friendship can transform a community.

  • Focus on the isolation and strain. // It’s estimated that about one in five children are neurodivergent and yet 85% of churches don’t have ministries that can support them. In California, 1 in 22 children are diagnosed with autism and other types of disabilities are on the rise. Bay Area Christian Church (BACC) is committed to inclusivity and working to address the isolation and strain of special needs families.
  • Spiritual Resource Ministry. // It’s not uncommon for parents and children to miss church because it can be difficult to attend with a child’s special needs. BACC has developed spiritual resource ministries which promote the inclusion of people and families with special needs so that they don’t feel isolated. It began with smaller classes that are more sensory-friendly and include both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. From there it grew to creating E-sports and E-life which offer inclusive programs for a variety of activities, from soccer and karate to gardening and photography.
  • Partner with others. // Because the goal is to include rather than segregate, Bay Area Christian partners with other youth ministries, professional sports teams, guest speakers and more. Identify the needs in your community and the gifting in your church and how you can pair the two together. Partner with organizations, schools, ministries, businesses and teams in your area to provide inclusive opportunities for children with special needs.
  • Start small. // Gail encourages churches that feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin to start small. Extend friendship to the special needs community in your area because there is often a friendship deficit here. Anyone can give the gift of listening or friendship. Not only are you building relationships among the children, but their families also benefit from being able to connect with others.
  • Provide training. // The success of inclusive programs is largely dependent on the volunteers who bring them to life. Gail emphasizes the importance of training these individuals, underscoring the biblical principles of friendship, encouragement and support for the vulnerable. Recognizing and appreciating these volunteers is crucial, as they are the ones who make a tangible difference in the lives of special needs individuals and their families.
  • Seek understanding. // If you’re facing challenges and concerns, open a dialogue with the family affected by special needs in order to know how to best interact with their child. Seek to understand what is needed and what you may not have considered in your program or outreach.
  • Meeting a critical need. // While it can feel intimidating to step onto the path of developing a spiritual resource ministry, Gail encourages churches to just begin. Remote areas may not have a lot of services for special needs children and families. There’s a big opportunity for churches to step in and offer purpose and occasions for inclusion. It begins with a heart to love people, extend friendship and meet a need.

Want to learn how to build a spiritual resource ministry at your church? Visit Bay Area Christian Church’s website to download the SRM Manual that Gail mentions. Plus explore E-sports and E-life for examples of inclusive community service programs.

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Hey, friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in today. You’re in for a real treat. Super excited to have Gail Ewell with us. She’s at Bay Area Christian Church. It’s a fantastic church in the Bay Area, obviously. She’s also a part of Hope Technology School. Bay Area Christian Church is deeply committed to creating environments where children and adults with special needs can thrive alongside their neurotypical peers. And ah the the school that she’s a part of, Hope Technology School, is a fully inclusion nonprofit school located in Palo Alto. Ah, super excited to have you on the show today, Gail. Thanks for being here.

Gail Ewell — Hey Thanks Rich! Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Rich Birch — Now this is going to be great. I’m honored that you would take some time to be with us. Tell us a little bit about Bay Area Christian. Kind of fill out the picture. Give us a you know a flavor of the church. Help us understand more about it.

Gail Ewell — Yeah, we’re we have 8 campuses throughout the Bay area, and Bay is really big and we’re spread all over the place. But yeah, we’re church committed to inclusivity for those with different abilities And it’s been a definitely work in progress. So it’s it’s really been a great light for we’re very um, focused on God and good, doing good and so a lot of our focus is outreach to the community. So we do a lot of community activities and programs. That’s a central focus for our church.

Rich Birch — Yeah, so good. Well I want to kind of zero in a little bit on what you’ve done to create a more inclusive church. And let’s talk a little bit about why this is such an issue. I had heard that and I and I don’t know whether this is true, but it’s one of those things I heard and it was stuck in my brain. I was talking to a friend who’s involved in similar ministry and they were talking about children specifically. But they were saying 1 in 5, I think was the number that they used, of children would be considered ah neuro-divergent different, you know than than everyone else. And 85% of churches don’t do any special needs ah, ministry whatsoever.

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — Um, and ah those that that struck me. I found that you know, really shocking. So talk to us tell us talk to us about why this is such an issue.

Gail Ewell — Ah, well in California 1 in 22 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Rich Birch — Wow. Yep.

Gail Ewell — And and other types of disabilities are on the rise as well across the United States. But around maybe 15% of US children between three and seventeen years old are affected by a developmental disability. And emphasizing of course the need for ministries and churches for inclusion. I actually recently heard of a study conducted by the university of Wisconsin that monitors the stress levels of ah mothers for eight days.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Gail Ewell — And they measured their hormone levels on specific days. And the study found that chronic stress levels experienced by these mothers was were similar to that of a combat foot soldier.

Rich Birch — Wow. Oh my goodness. Wow.

Gail Ewell — So yeah, so what we the problem I guess that we or the need is that we were trying to address the isolation and strain of special needs families that can be a significant problem for not only in our congregation, but also in our communities.

Rich Birch — So how did what was the kind of journey the starting journey for this at Bay Area Christian? Where did this where did this begin?

Gail Ewell — So as a mother and a leader I was going to church and um, we have a strong women’s ministry, and that’s my primary focus – women’s ministry. I’m an executive women’s ministry leader for very large church. And I couldn’t get into church because I was at church the building but because my child had autism I was unable to be a part of the whole service because I was always getting called out at the children’s ministry. And my first son John was born with ah down syndrome – that was a surprise to us. We didn’t know.

Gail Ewell — And then two years later our son Jordan was diagnosed with autism. So we had significant needs in our own family and we experienced our own barriers. Um, and I knew and understood there must be a lot of other people facing this kind of challenge.

Rich Birch — Absolutely.

Gail Ewell — So we created programs for that because I knew the community probably at back then had you know needs. And I just ah understand that you know I realized that a lot of moms and children are missing church because there’s just no way they can even fathom going to church with their child’s needs, you know?

Rich Birch — Yeah, totally.

Gail Ewell — And um, one you know it’s just and so I become you know all, most parents become strong advocates when this they get these kind of needs in their family. For those that have less support needs there’s more advocacy out there. But I always think of Proverbs 31 that says we should speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Gail Ewell — And my my children at that time were nonverbal…

Rich Birch — Oh wow.

Gail Ewell — …and I had a strong conviction about speaking up for the nonverbal…

Rich Birch — Yeah, absolutely.

Gail Ewell — …and those literally the had no voice. Yeah.

Rich Birch — Yeah, absolutely. Wow. So What does this look like at Bay Area Bay Area Christian? Like if I’m a parent who’s exploring, thinking about coming to the church, how do you actually engage with them? What does that look like?

Gail Ewell — Yeah, we had two programs we developed out of these needs that we saw in my own life, and in the community, and in our church. And that’s um we developed a spiritual resource ministry that was founded in 1996 but that was mostly to help families who felt isolated and ah couldn’t participate in church. And so what we did is we developed what we call our SRM Ministry – the Spiritual Resource Ministry. Which basically you know for me I didn’t understand sensory sensitivities back then. Now it’s a little bit more known. Sensory friendly is a more common term. But back then I didn’t understand my child was experiencing experiencing sensory sensitivities in church.

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — And so you know there’s the loud, there’s the music, there’s the crowds. And you know even for us that are neurotypical, we can experience sensory sensitivities at times, right?

Rich Birch — Yes. Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, for sure.

Gail Ewell — So we’ve had to develop a smaller class and we started from there that was more sensory friendly. And then we did kind of a reverse mainstream where we allowed children to come in who are neurotypical. And it just and from there it kind of exploded and ballooned into over 20 locations.

Gail Ewell — The six sports that we did E-sports and E-life. And E-sports is more like soccer, basketball, football, karate, dance, fitness. It just kind of exploded because the members expertise or talents, they could take their talent and use it wherever their community was. And they caught a vision and it exploded. And then it’s more of late it’s turned into E-life, which is more like activities versus sports.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Gail Ewell — And so not everybody does sports. But you know we anyone at any level can come. I mean even our E-sports program, you know we have ah a child… I’ll give you an example of a boy and who came with a wheelchair and he had Spina Bifida and he did not want to go to the wheelchair programs that were out there. And so what the volunteers did is they gave him a walker and he’s the goalie and he was so excited. Parents are in tears. You know like we’re trying to constantly modify and adapt our program so anyone could come at any level.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Gail Ewell — And the E-life kind of came out of that and that’s more like gardening and theater and photography and academics. And we had a professor do an e-stem class recently for his community…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Gail Ewell — …and then gaming. That’s a big one – the e-gaming. So we have a couple that’s awesome. The Combs and they they run that as well for their children…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Gail Ewell — …and for the community.

Rich Birch — Wow. Yeah, well I I love this.

Gail Ewell — And sorry – tell me when to stop.

Rich Birch — I know – I love it. I love it. Because you know as people that are you’re listening in, you’re realizing, man, there is so much going on at Bay Area Christian in this area, which has been my experience in the past. It’s like when we take some first steps in this direction, we realize oh my goodness, there’s this tremendous need in the in the community and it’s an opportunity for us to step in, and and it does start to balloon. But let’s take a step back to, maybe if a if a church is thinking about or or maybe at Bay Area when you when you first started to offer, you know, the the classroom and stuff like that. How did you build say awareness and education with the church in general? Like you know, obviously the parents who who are wrestling with these issues understood that, hey this is a there there’s stuff here I this is something I need help with.

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — But with the broader church, what’s that look like?

Gail Ewell — Well we kind of did a needs assessment in our church where we just understand the specific needs of our church community and identified areas that required additional support. The members that needed the support. We are fairly large church. So there were a lot more when we kind of looked at it opened our eyes and looked at it and were able to see the needs. And then we did identified church talents and then we’re able to assess talents. But also looking at professionals who in the field had experience, right? Whether it’s healthcare providers, or teachers, or special educators, or therapists. They were just a lot, boatload of people that we didn’t always understand. We had such a wealth within the church. We just had to go assess that and identify the talent. And we created those programs out of that talent.

Gail Ewell — But early on it was, you know, ah humble beginnings. We across the street was a big field and it was full of duck poop and um geese poop, and that was our first E-soccer.

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — And you know and it was just humble beginnings. Yeah, we just started and and it grew from there. And for a lot of churches, I think it’s just honestly believing that you can do something. And I try to encourage people that um, you can start with friendship because there’s a friendship deficit in that community. Um, and so I think anyone can give the gift of listening or being a friend. And that’s that’s where we started. We started with just outreach and friendship and listening and started small.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — So I don’t know if that answers the question.

Rich Birch — Yeah, no, that’s good. That’s really good. Yeah, maybe unpack that a little bit more. When you think about what some of those, what would be some of your advice. I’m sure you get calls from churches and they you know leaders see the need. They’re like I understand but, man where do we start? I’m a little you know I look at everything Bay Area has done. That’ll be great 5 years from now, but what’s my first step into this area?

Gail Ewell — So we did our first step, I think we started with some sort of evangelistic type outreach for workshops that we did.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Gail Ewell — And so I just took an interest I had and I remember just reaching out to doctors in the field, whether it’s natural medicine, or [inaudible] medicine – something interesting to all people. And I invited a a guest speaker.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Gail Ewell — And we just created our, you know if you have a church building, you can have it there. And then you reach out to your community to come to the guest speaker. Because there are a lot of people who want to hear different topics, whether it’s anxiety or depression or you know or just could be tailored to a specific special need. And…

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — …and that’s when we realized we had so many people come that that’s when we realized, wow, you know we could build a ministry from this because the outreach was actually easy. Um, and sometimes we get frustrated with that. But this was so easy. I mean my son went to preschool at special needs preschool, and I invited his friend his little buddy and his mom. And his mom came and then from there she came to church and she became a Christian. Then he grew up, he became Christian. Now he’s trying to help all his friends become christian.

Gail Ewell — And he you know he’s he’s autistic. And how he’s going to school and he wants to be a broadcaster.

Rich Birch — Oh cool.

Gail Ewell — You know he’s been on television. And and that was just a first workshop we did and that was the first thing she came to, and then from there you see the evolution of how you can change lives and help people and serve people in the community.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s so cool. Yeah, I love that. I think there’s you know there’s a lot there. When you think about what have you learned in kind of interacting with the various ministries of the church because as you start to provide say hey we’re trying to open our door here to, say kids kids with special needs or you know the broader community with special needs, that starts to have impact on lots of other ministries. You know you start thinking, hey we want to you can’t just have like a there’s just like a special needs ministry and then that’s totally disconnected from the rest of the church. It’s got to be integrated into what do we do. What have you learned on that front? How do you collaborate with existing ministries?

Gail Ewell — Absolutely, yeah, the goal is inclusion not separation.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Gail Ewell — So you you don’t want to have a special needs, you know children’s ministry or a special need… you know the goal is not to segregate, it’s to include. And so we collaborated like you said with existing ministries that we partnered with ah, the youth ministries, and so a lot of our middle school and teens came out. You know they maybe did their high school service hours. So there was ways that we partnered with other ministries to get things kind of rolling um, and that really helped us a lot. We promote volunteering in our church and you know at all the time. And did we did a lot of, I thought back because sometimes you don’t think about what you do, you know you don’t think about I did this now,

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Yes.

Gail Ewell — You know God gets all the glory – I mean he had it explode. But but um, we offered a lot of training sessions, you know, where we could just help enlighten people about different areas or needs of special needs, and that helped the volunteers with their skills and knowledge. And um, you know I always like to start with a biblical motivation. So Matthew 5 says be the light, and you know if you shine bright people are gonna be they’re gonna see that light and want to come to it.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Gail Ewell — You know, ah every church community, like you said, you know, it’s it’s unique. And you know the tactics you find are are going to be specific to your city and your needs. But recruiting and dedicate yourself to volunteers is really important for a thriving ministry. And we just went out to the community and we found, you know, university sports teams, the USF, University San Francisco, they actually have their men’s and women’s basketball team come out and help us with e-hoops…

Rich Birch — Oh wow.

Gail Ewell — …you know and help us with the clinics. And then the major league, our major league teams like the Earthquakes and the Warriors, we actually partnered with them to do activities and clinics. And our kids were able to go out and play on play where the play pros play. And and ah play you know sometimes they play on the the actual you know, um place where they’re playing it for the halftime. Or sometimes they’re having a special clinic, and even Ron Adams, one of the assistant coaches came out and spoke to the kids. So we like to partner with, you know, universities or or major leagues in your area, or existing ministries, or just looking for outreach where people want to do good…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Gail Ewell — …because that’s our our conviction to God and good.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, that’s so cool. I love that. When you think about the training of you know, your existing ministries and some of that coaching that you’ve done within your you know your existing you know things that were already running. Was there, is there some go-to advice that you find yourself coming back to time and again to try to help various ministries be more inclusive? Is there like a piece of advice that it’s like, oh you know, I would say these two things to everybody every ministry? What what would be some of those things?

Gail Ewell — Yeah, I think um training for training definitely did a lot of sensory-friendly. Matthew 25 says that you know the parallel shoots a groats it says there’s a part where it says when when did you see you friend…this is The Voice, it says when did we see you friendless or excluded, without friends when did we see you weak or without friends? And Jesus respond when you when you saw the least of these and you ignored their suffering, you ignored me. And I think something we can all relate to is loneliness and friendlessness and and needing friends.

Gail Ewell — And that’s really a critical part of building and training the volunteers because our volunteers aren’t just doing their duty. They’re making friends.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Gail Ewell — They’re going out and being friends.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s good.

Gail Ewell — You know they’re volunteering in other ways that we don’t even know. They’re going to homes and you know they’re serving the community on a, not just a buddy. You know a good buddy. It’s their friend, you know? And they’re helping to break that friendship deficit and that isolation and that stress of those families in an incredible way because of their big hearts.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. Well I’m sure over the years you’ve you know there’s some volunteers, speaking of volunteers that have really stood out and have been like, wow these these people are doing an amazing job and…

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — You know what what would be some of the ways that you’ve shown, you know you’ve recognized those people, you’ve shown appreciation, you’ve you’ve tried to you know, celebrate them internally?

Gail Ewell — Um, yeah, we do recognition appreciation all the time, regular acknowledgement, appreciation of the volunteers. One one of the guys that really stands out to me is Jason Collette because we had volunteered to do a sensory [inaudible] vaccine clinic and the family said that they called him personally and asked if he would come to another time of his doctor appointment…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Gail Ewell — …because the only way this child would get it her his shots was, I think he, was through having Jason there.

Rich Birch — Wow, wow.

Gail Ewell — And so, you know he’s a really bighearted guy. And he went. And you know his own you said, oh sure I’ll come to your doctor appointment, help ya. And you know that he got all his shots and everything you know. And the family was so grateful because there’s so many needs in the community they get so isolated and they can’t do some of the basic things that we take for granted, just go to the doctor, you know.

Rich Birch — Right? Yeah, that’s cool. What a cool story. I love that. You know, going that’s, talk about going above and beyond.

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — Like it’s you know it’s so much more than just showing up for e-sports or whatever…

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — …whatever he’s volunteering with. It’s like how do I really get into these families’ lives and help serve you know their their total life.

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — That’s that’s amazing. What when what is the kind of the support for volunteers look like? How do you what kind of training do you are you doing? I’m trying to kind of get a sense of what that looks like. Obviously there would be whatever you would normally do for for every other volunteer, but then there must be more that you’re doing on top of that to provide additional support and help.

Gail Ewell — Yeah, yeah, definitely. We’ve definitely developed trainings for, especially from some of the sports programs for the volunteers that come out…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Gail Ewell — …on how to interact specifically with the special children with special needs. And we’ve utilized and accessed our own talent in our church to do that, and including um, you know this special some of the ones that have more expertise to come out and help the coaches. We’ve also, so specifically they’re talking about how to interact and how not how not to react, and how to be a friend. And you know how to encourage participation. And you know these are children who otherwise would have no sports.

Rich Birch — Interesting.

Gail Ewell — You know they would not be it. They would not be at sports.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Gail Ewell — I mean it’s beautiful to watch, because you just realize, wow, this is definitely God’s work, you know. Because this wouldn’t otherwise happen. And these these events are they’re they’re monumental in the child’s life. They’re what they remember. They’re their favorite time of the week, you know, when they come.

Gail Ewell — And but we have had to so you know we’ve learned by doing. It’s a work in progress and a lot of hands-on field experience. So we’ve learned by doing and so then we access the talent from the church, and then we continue to have volunteer recruitment, but trainings that can help them learn to be more sensitive sort of to the special needs. You make mistakes, but honestly the parents are so grateful and it’s free, and and they make friends and otherwise at school many times they’re friendless, you know. So not always, but you know they are a lot. And the parents get to have a little break on the sideline…

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — …and talk to other parents.

Rich Birch — Yeah, there’s some networking that happens there for sure.

Gail Ewell — And get yes and just get support and encouragement.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — So that’s just that’s the the favorite time for those families. But yeah, the volunteers are getting trained as much as we can and much as we know, and we’re learning from our mistakes. But I don’t know if that’s specific enough for you.

Rich Birch — No, that’s good. Yeah, that’s good.

Gail Ewell — But that’s what we um do.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I remember um once I was talking to a parent who was reflecting thanking, you know our our our church for having you know of a similar kind of ministry. And they were saying you know my son um, who would have been a teenager at this point you know everyone in my son’s life because of his his special needs are various care workers that are paid to be with him, that are you know these are and and um, and I get choked up every time I think about it. And she said you know when we come to church, these people are choosing to be with my son. And you know they’re they’re you know they’re they’re saying hey I want to be here. This is you know, um and she was reflecting on, man, what that what what that meant to her as a mom…

Gail Ewell — Yeah.

Rich Birch — …that you know there’d be people that were going out of the way to say, yeah I I want to be with your kid. And and like you say it develops into that kind of friendship; it develops into… I like that you keep coming back to that. That this whole idea of isolation and you know friendship ultimately and how do we develop relationships. It’s not about providing some sort of program. It’s ultimately trying to get people connected with each other. I love that.

Gail Ewell — Yeah, that’s a great, that’s a great story because we see that happening and um I appreciate that those ministries so much, because I think it’s sometimes the only thing they have, you know. Like you said the paid versus a real friend or…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — …someone not being paid to be with me. We like to empower the adults, and that’s on my heart because my kids have grown up…

Rich Birch — Grown up. Yeah.

Gail Ewell — …and are adults with special needs. But um because you know we’ve empowered them to become coaches now. You know they went through the program now they’re learning and training to become the coaches, and that really is inspirational because they’re seeing their purpose you know?

Rich Birch — Yep, yeah, that’s cool. Talk to me about I’m sure there are um, once once you open up as a church and say hey we want to do more of this, and and I I do want to talk more about the adult side of the equation as well. So this is I’m going to ask a kid question, but I want to get to that. You know part of what we’re we’re trying to do is you say hey we want to be inclusive for anybody. And that ends up you know which is wonderful and we’re trying to figure that out.

Rich Birch — But then there can end up being kids or adults that come that have very severe, you know, ah medical needs that are, you know, they’re like complex that they’re you know there’s something we need to think really delicately about. We need to ensure that we you know we handle that relationship in that individual well so that we don’t you know, create any you know further problems. How do you handle that? How do you how do you ensure that kind of the right information is getting the right people that we’re you know we’re handling people correctly, doing everything we need to do? Um, yeah, what what does that look like?

Gail Ewell — So like I think that if you open the dialogue with the families, they know they’re the experts.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Gail Ewell — They’re the seasoned parent, you know. And when you open that dialogue and you have good communication with families then you know best how you can accommodate or modify or meet needs. Ah, and and when you have that listening ear and you’re open to hearing the the the needs and what they need for support. I know we have one family and their child, you know is a wheelchair and has some special needs as far as their physical mobility, et cetera. And that you know coming to Camp was hard because our Camp had hills.

Rich Birch — Yep, yes, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Gail Ewell — Um, some of those camps was like alone pushing the wheelchair up and down the hills…

Rich Birch — Right, right, right.

Gail Ewell — …you know is wearing her out you know. And there was some other complex needs. So you know we just communicated in a way where we could get volunteers to push and make sure her cabin’s on the flat level. And just accommodated make sure her our classes were on the flat levels you know. And thinking about mobility needs right? And that was just talking to the mom and get hearing her feedback and hearing, oh yeah, I’m not even we’re not even. We’re so sorry we oversight you know. We’re not even thinking about the hills, you know…

Rich Birch — Right, yeah.

Gail Ewell — …and how hard that would be for someone to go up and down them hills for the classes a camp, right?

Rich Birch — Right. Yeah, yeah for sure. Yeah, that makes total sense. Well let’s pivot in a little slightly different direction. Tell me about Hope Technology School – tell me a little bit about this.

Gail Ewell — Yeah, um, Hope Technology School is an inclusion school which means that everyone’s included in education. There’s no separate classes. Um, it basically we have neuro 60% special those with special needs and then 40% are actually neurotypical .

Rich Birch — Okay, yep.

Gail Ewell — So they so a lot of people but you know that’s a a nonprofit private school, um and a lot of people it’s non-sectarian it’s not religious. Um, but it’s an incredible light because we include. And and we’ve seen I mean we’ve seen the neurotypical people graduate, go to college, get incredible jobs, you know. We’ve seen this kids with special needs go go to college. I mean it’s just the power of inclusion is amazing. And um we’ve learned a lot in the years we’ve done it. You know whatever is a twenty plus years um. And you know we do collaborative teaching and differentiated instruction and you know we have ah kind of a universal design approach to education and modeling. And for anyone out there with education background, they know, kind of these terms. But you know it really helps us have a really successful inclusion model. Um, so is that helpful?

Rich Birch — Um, yeah, that’s wonderful. I love that. And you know I think this is that kind of thing is at least that’s been my experience as well. You see as churches or individuals or leaders, they they start moving in this area. And you start to realize, oh man there are just so many needs. There’s so many pieces of the puzzle here around how do we create a world where you know we can include more people where people can be ah, be you know, get a place at the table. And you know like it’s it’s you know there’s lots of different pieces here which I just think is so inspiring and you know just so incredible.

Rich Birch — So when you look to the future as at the church when you think kind of you know where where does this go next for Bay Area Christian as you think about inclusion down the road? What would be some of the questions you’re wondering about as you look up over the horizon?

Gail Ewell — Um, as far as new programs and outreach and things like that I think our E-life is something we’d like to develop more because we were primarily focused initially on inclusive sports programs and getting people out who otherwise wouldn’t have any opportunities. Ah, so E-life I mean there’s just a whole world of things we can do with that, you know. It basically if they’re cooking or doing yoga or whatever you can make it an inclusive activity and you know. And the E stands for exceptional. So we think they’re all exceptional.

Gail Ewell — Um, so that that’s something we’d like to develop more. And then I think the isolation is something I’d like to tackle more in the adult ministries. It’s something I like to tackle more and do more for the adult ministries. So there’s just not a lot when people age out of the system, so to speak that’s a term, they the parents and adults lose a lot of their support. I mean there’s these day programs they can go to – it depends on the city and the area you’re in what kind of services. Sometimes people in remote areas just don’t have a lot of services. There’s not a lot. And the church can do a lot as far as providing purpose and opportunities for um inclusion.

Gail Ewell — I I don’t know if I should keep so you know hopefully you could edit this out if it’s not a good story there. Yeah, but but ah…

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah.

Gail Ewell — You know I don’t know um, but what if some part that inspired but also challenged and convicted me was when I moved to the city I’m in now, and um I heard ah a neighbor asked me at a block party, did you hear about this story? And and I and then I didn’t know what she was talking about. I went and looked it up and it was basically a person in our area who aged out of the system—a mom —and she ended up shooting her son and shooting shooting herself. And…

Rich Birch — Oh how sad.

Gail Ewell — …and it for me I mean we don’t ever want to hear the uplift you only want to hear the uplifting stories. But really honestly that burned a hole in my soul.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, oh man. Yes.

And I said I want to provide something for the adult because she reached out to her neighbor and her neighbor didn’t know what to do. And there was I just keep thinking if someone had reached out to her…

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — …her and her son would be alive, right?

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — She was so distraught, obviously probably had mental health issues and depression and whatnot. But so that gives you just a window into the isolation that can sometimes occur for those with more support needs. And that there’s just pinnacle moments in my life where like something’s burn in your heart and you go, I’m gonna do some about that, you know.

Rich Birch — We got to do something about that. Yeah. Yeah, totally, yeah.

Gail Ewell — Yeah I’m gonna do some about that. There’s something I’m gonna do. I’m gonna get a conviction about that. And I’m not going to forget about those those individuals who are who are really in need.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I love that. And I think you know that that is such a great example of I think as churches, think a lot the churches that I’ve seen that have got engaged in trying to create an inclusive environment, it typically starts when kids ministry. But then what happens over time…

Gail Ewell — Right.

Rich Birch — …is you know these those young people though they they go from kids to young people to young adults to adults…

Gail Ewell — Yes.

Rich Birch — …and and and which is a wonderful thing, right? Then it creates these new opportunities for a church to say hey what what can we do? And you know man look forward to a future where that’s just a normal part of um, you know what’s happening in in the church.

Rich Birch — Do you have a sense…so ah like this feels like ah it’s still a minority of churches that are doing something. Like this this feels like ah you know what do you have any sense of the kind of percentages what that looks like, how many churches out there?

Gail Ewell — Yeah I don’t know the percentages but when I’m ah in social media and I’m on support groups and I’m following ah parents that have huge followings…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Gail Ewell — …you know with special needs families, there are so there are good works out there. There are people reaching out. There are activities. Um, but I think it’s what you said, it’s It’s few.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — You know there’s not compared to how many people there are and how many churches there are.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Gail Ewell — I think most people can get intimidated by it. I was telling one of my friends a story about when um I was in high school and you know they ask you what do you want… they kind of help you with what do you want to be career building or whatever. And they sent me to back then an institution where all the ah people with down syndrome were put. And it was terrible experience for me. And I remember walking out of there going I never want to work with people with special needs. I was too afraid of what I saw.

Rich Birch — Right.

Gail Ewell — Of course now they don’t have those institutions, but it’s much different for people now in that sense. But um I think a lot of times fear…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — …can keep us from opening up our ministries because we fear of the unknown, I suppose.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Gail Ewell — I don’t know anything about it. Or I don’t know oh that’s going to be too hard or it’s going to burn us all out or it’s going to take up too many resources or. And they don’t understand that really it it just starts with a big heart to love people and be a friend and reach out and meet a need. And and I think God blesses it. He he you know was at John 9 where he talks about the man born blind and he says that the parents didn’t sin. It’s because the work of God was meant to be seen through his life.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Gail Ewell — And I think that that’s what God can do.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Gail Ewell — He can show the he can show the light. He can show the work. He can show your hearts.

Rich Birch — Yeah, amen. That’s so good. Well I think that’s a great place to to to land it. I think that’s a great kind of even you know, kind of final thought there. But as we wrap up, kind of any any final words then I want to make sure that we give out contact information, websites, all that stuff so people can track. Because I think this is a great story and there’s going to be churches that are going to want to know more about it. But any kind of final words and then how can people track with you and the church.

Gail Ewell — Ah, final word. My final words would be believe that you can make a difference. Believe that you can listen. You can be a friend. Reach out to your neighbor. Reach out to the people at school. Understand and believe that you can really help, you know.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Gail Ewell — Try not to judge. You know when you see the boy at the Target having a meltdown, you know be just reach out and be a friend. Is there anything I can do for you?

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Gail Ewell — Um, you know I think we’ve developed a spiritual resource manual that’s coming soon. We have updated an old one and so you can register for access and um on that on the website I’ll I’ll give to you all the websites. And you can access that manual which will give you a lot of hands-on tactics and practical advice about how to start your spiritual resource ministry or how to start an E-sports or an E-activities in your community. So there’s a lot of ah resources we have online if people want to register for access…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Gail Ewell — …to the spiritual resource manual.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s great. I’ll I’ll put a link to that in the in the show notes. But I think that’s just at bacc.cc/srm for folks that are listening in.

Gail Ewell — Yes.

Rich Birch — Um, but we’ll ah we’ll we’ll put a link in the show notes as well for that. I would encourage people to pick that up. Well this has been a fantastic conversation, Gail. I really appreciate you being here today. Thanks so much for being on.

Gail Ewell — Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.