Special needs center’s namesake ‘brings a lot of joy’

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP) — Little 4-year-old Rowen Glenn doesn’t allow social boundaries to stand in the way of a good laugh. Her extremely rare Sotos Syndrome birth defect erases such cognition.

“She has no understanding of social barriers,” is how Rowen’s grandfather pastor Mike Glenn puts it. “And if she wants to talk to you, or find out about you or if she wants to show you something, she’ll walk right up to you and do it. She’s developed a really fun sense of humor. She loves to get you to laugh at her, and she’s just a very, very sweet child. She brings a lot of joy to our family.”

The 15,000-square-foot Rowen Center houses interactive classrooms, sensory classrooms, an art studio and more. (Photos by Dillon Sherlock)

Rowen is the namesake of the new Rowen Glenn Center, a 15,000-square-foot special needs ministry facility Brentwood Baptist Church opened Sunday (Jan. 9) at its Brentwood campus. A financial donor who remains anonymous specifically requested the building be named for Rowen.

“I was just so tickled for her,” Glenn told Baptist Press. “Rowen’s birth has certainly changed our lives, and not just in challenging ways. She has changed our lives in that she has brought all kind of beauty, and love and joy and laughter. And knowing that there will be people talking about her long after we’re gone is really humbling and moving.”

The building allows Brentwood to expand the Embrace Special Needs Ministry that serves about 70 families. Tiffany McCullough joined Brentwood’s staff as a full-time special needs minister in 2016.

“This is definitely a space designed for individuals who’ve been impacted by disability to have community, to be with other folks that are like them,” McCullough said, “and to feel that they have friends and peers and that they’re safe and loved and that they belong somewhere.”

The building allows the church to expand the ministry McCullough considers vital in Middle Tennessee and elsewhere. Statewide, 15.3 percent of Tennessee’s 6.4 million people were living with a disability in 2015, according to a national study by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

In town hall-type gatherings, McCullough has learned that parents of special needs children want their entire families to be able to attend church together, and they need respite care.

“A lot of these parents,” she said, “they maybe go out on a date once a year, by themselves.”

Typically, parents tell McCullough that when they visit churches without special needs ministries, they are told to keep their children with them during worship, which is prohibitive depending on the level of care required. After visiting several churches and hearing the request over and over, parents typically choose to remain at home and not engage with a church.

A Brentwood Baptist volunteer works with a girl in the the church’s Embrace Special Needs Ministry. (Photos by Dillon Sherlock)

“I’ve had families come to me and say, ‘We didn’t even get past the welcome center,’” McCullough said. “They literally told us they couldn’t handle our kid. … When you get told that three or four times, what are you going to do? You’re just going to stop going to church, because it’s humiliating. It’s defeating.”

The expanded ministry, formerly housed in various rooms on campus, allows the church to minister not only to individuals with special needs, but also to  their parents, siblings and caregivers.

“Special needs families typically don’t have just that one child. They have three other kids that are typically developing, neuro-typical, and they haven’t been to church either,” McCullough said. “When the church makes it a priority to do ministry with special needs families well, you’re not just ministering to that individual with a disability, you’re reaching the entire family. Because then they can go, and the mom can be in the choir, and the dad can be in the parking team and in a men’s group, and the two teenagers can be in the student ministry.”

The new building includes space dedicated to various age groups, including preschool, students and adults. The Rowen Center has interactive classrooms, sensory classrooms, sensory play spaces inside and outdoors, an art studio with a kiln and a home arts area with a teaching kitchen and laundry rooms.

“When we care for their child with special needs,” McCullough said, “that may be the only break they’re getting that entire week.”

Special needs ministry varies on each Brentwood campus depending on the needs of the congregation.

“When you have a child or an adult with special needs show up,” she said, “there could be 70 different ways that friend is going to need support, based on the needs. Special needs is not black and white, at all.”

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