By Delores McDonald

The red carpet was rolled out for 13 at First ARP Church, Rock Hill (SC). As vans and cars arrived, guests were greeted and escorted into the church gym, which had been transformed into a dazzling ballroom filled with sparkling streamers and decorations – complete with a mirror ball.

Soon, the entire room was filled with smiling faces, hugs and dancing feet, as everyone took to the dance floor. The rhythm of the music indicated the theme for the night – “All That Jazz.” DJ George Fields (of Camp Joy fame) did not disappoint as he played upbeat music that had everyone either dancing, singing or swaying to the music.

“The intent was for this dance to be a springboard for further ministry to our special needs community,” said event chairman Jeanie Alexander.

In December, when Alexander read about a church in Charlotte that hosted a prom for a special needs group, she immediately knew she wanted those with special needs in the Rock Hill (SC) area to have the same experience.

As the outreach coordinator for Women’s Ministries at First ARP Church, she discussed the idea with Session Outreach Committee Chairman John Gettys, who agreed they should “hit the ground running” for outreach in 2012.

Camp Joy Ministry Impact

So she didn’t waste time contacting friends in the church whose hearts had been captured by special needs folks, which included Camp Joy veterans, special education teachers and members serving on the York County Disabilities Special Needs Board. “I quickly realized I had the right folks on the bus,” she said.

More than 75 volunteers agreed to help make April 13, 2012, a special night for those with disabilities and special needs – a night, staged as a prom, decorated and directed by “special event magician” Barbara Lesslie, music selected and played by George Fields. A photographer was even on hand to make photos for each guest as a memento of the occasion.

Event committee member Jamey Dagenhart said many people in the life of First ARP Rock Hill have been impacted by the ministry of Camp Joy (an ARP Christian Education Ministries’ camp for those with special needs), held every summer at Bonclarken Conference Center in Flat Rock, NC.

“This experience ‘on the mountain’ has translated into the desire and realization that there is a real need for the church to minister to those with special needs,” Dagenhart said. This event was geared for ages 16 and up. Around 350 people attended. “We were blessed to have 130 volunteers from First ARP, Tirzah ARP, Neely’s Creek ARP and Camp Joy – as well as 130 guests with special needs and 90 family members and support staff of those with special needs.

“I was blown away by the number of people who attended,” he said. “It was great to see the gym filled with people singing and dancing and having a great time. When George Fields sang “Jesus Loves Me” at the end, I cannot put into words how I felt – hearing these special friends sing out loud – as boldly as they could. While I realize more people are apt to come to a dance rather than a worship service, I can’t help but get excited about the work that First Rock Hill is doing in the community for those with disabilities.”

New Ministry

Beginning Aug. 23, First ARP Rock Hill will hold a special service of worship on the fourth Thursday of every month from 6:30-8 p.m. for “Special Friends with Special Needs” and their families. The church will reach out not only to those with special needs, but to the families and caregivers as well. “This service will include lots of singing, Scripture reading, teaching of Bible stories and verses, games and refreshments,” Dagenhart said.

Event committee member Ralph Norman added, “Those who made this event possible, from church members to non- church members and helpers, had the same thought – that we are all blessed; we really don’t have any problems, and yet we still complain. This special night was a ministry to everyone who attended.”

Jeanie Alexander said she hopes this type of event will be contagious through- out our ARP churches. “With the success of Camp Joy at Bonclarken and now in Florida and with requests to start Camp Joy in Maryland and other places, I pray the ripple effect of this ever-expanding ministry will encourage churches of the ARP denomination and beyond to open wide their doors and hearts to our special friends with love, mercy, grace and always – JOY!