The concept of a sensory room is becoming more of a hot topic but still remains a new concept for many. A sensory room was a new concept for Pella native Mark Van Roekel, but it perfectly answers a calling God laid on his heart. Van Roekel felt led on two distinct occasions to start a program within children’s ministry that would give students with special needs and other disabilities a safe haven at Third Church in Pella.
As Van Roekel began to take steps forward on this idea, the concept of a sensory room was born. Although the concept was new to Van Roekel, it was not new to many who volunteer and work at Third Church.
“Teaching to a class that has children with special needs or children who may be easily overstimulated can lead to positive growth,” explained Cathy Diehl, a children’s ministry team member of Third Church. “However, it also can lead to some negative and tricky situations for all those involved.”
Thus, Diehl shared the same burden as Van Roekel, desiring a place of refuge for children with sensory needs at Third Church.
The dream for Third’s sensory room was to create a space for children with special needs or overstimulation issues to wind down, feel safe, and be ministered to. Third Church is home to a large congregation, so many members’ children would reap benefit from a sensory room. However, figuring out the logistics of who would oversee the room, how they would pay for the room, and where the room would go were called into question immediately.
By the grace of God, as Diehl described, everything simply began to fall into place. A room opened up that was situated directly between the two wings of the church that comprise the children’s ministry. With a door leading to each wing, children can come in and out of the room with ease. Moreover, there was a small amount of money left over in the children’s ministry budget. These leftover funds were used to purchase furniture, sensory activities, and other equipment for the room.
The final piece that fell into place occurred when Diehl emailed Kinetic Edge’s Occupational Therapist Elise Spronk. Diehl knew of Spronk’s vast knowledge and experience in working with children and sensory preferences, so she asked her for any assistance and wisdom she was willing to share to help complete the room.
Spronk wanted to ensure that all sensory areas would be covered and have a correlating activity. Thus, she helped Diehl fill the room with bean bags chairs, weighted blankets, moon sand, plastic tubes, bubbles, and other activities that would help with all areas of sensory stimulation. In addition to helping with what went in the room, Spronk began to train all of the children’s ministry leaders, giving additional and more in-depth training for those who provide one-on-one care.
Spronk taught strategies for noticing if a child was having problems processing sensory stimuli, how to calm their anxieties, and how to better handle outbursts and emotions. With Spronk’s training, all those involved with children’s ministry began to feel more comfortable and capable for caring for students with sensory stimulation problems.
“The sensory room is a blessing for all,” shared Spronk. “A room like this has been on my heart for years now.”
Spronk reflected on an experience she had a few years ago while sitting in a service at Third Church. A little boy who had sensory processing issues would come and sit with her in the back when the music started playing and things got loud. Spronk knew the boy because he was a previous pediatric client of hers, and she knew that he suffered from sensory overload issues.
“I thought then how it would have been nice to have a room that he could go to when things got to be too much,” explained Spronk. “Now we finally have that room!”
The number of kids in the space varies depending on the day and time. Kids may be in the room for the entire duration of the service or just for a few minutes, depending on their needs. Regardless of how long they’re in the room, kids are guaranteed to find a safe refuge filled with sensory rich activities.
Spronk would love to see sensory rooms available throughout more churches in the Pella area and beyond. She and her son Bennett frequently volunteer in Third’s sensory room together, giving them an opportunity to bond with each other and with students from the children’s ministry. Kinetic Edge’s Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) Ashley Beekman and her husband Spencer have also become active volunteers in Third’s sensory room.
Third’s sensory room has been open since September, 2017, and is thriving. The children and their individual helpers love it and so do the volunteers and teachers. The sensory room is manned twice a month by Van Roekel and his family, once a month by Spronk and Beekman, and then other volunteers, including Diehl, help when they can.
All agree, the sensory room has proved time and time again to be a blessing for many children at Third Church.