Dan Greco thinks a lot about trees.
As lead pastor at the nine-year-old Lifetree Community Church, Greco says his church’s mission is “to help people in Robbinsville build their own faith and live a life that would reflect that faith.” Playing on the tree metaphor in the church’s name, Greco says that faith is the root system that “keeps people strong in what they believe that transcends what they are experiencing.”
But, he continues, “the point of a tree is not just to exist or survive—trees make the environment better.” Hence he urges people to ask themselves, “How does our faith inform your decisions, your investments, where you put your time? Are you living out what you say you believe?”
One way that people at Lifetree live out their beliefs is a partnership with Ability Tree, an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit created in New Jersey but based in Arkansas, to add a sensory room at the rear of the church. (The “tree” in both names is coincidental, Greco said.)
Three Robbinsville residents, active in both Lifetree and as volunteers for Ability Tree NJ, are working to implement the Ability Tree vision, as expressed on its website, “to create inclusive and supportive communities where individuals and families affected by disability can enjoy healthy relationships in their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and churches.”
Ability Tree NJ president Natalie Schuberth explains that the faith-based component of Ability Tree “steers what do; we believe that God created all of us in his image and we all have gifts to contribute.” Pierre Dan Louis, social media director, has spearheaded the sensory room project, and Shannon Gafgen, family liaison, has helped create a twice-a-month respite program for parents of children with disabilities.
Louis, who works professionally with children on the autism spectrum, explains the rationale for both programs: “We know it is difficult for parents who have kids with disabilities to take them into the community, whether food shopping or to the movies—because sometimes it’s hard for people to understand what is happening if your child is having struggles.”
Louis was particularly concerned with parents who “want to attend church services but it may not be an environment that supports their child.” The goal of the sensory room is to create a space “where a parent can sit and watch and listen to the church service with their child in an environment that is friendly.”
“Lights, clapping, loud noises, or the band’s singing might be challenging for the child,” especially children on the autism spectrum, Louis said. An uncomfortable child may then get loud and disturb other people, who may not understand the child or support the parents. The consequence is that many parents choose to stay home from church.
The room sits behind the sanctuary; it has a two-way window and speakers with controllable volume that pipe in the service. The lights are also dimmable, in order to give families control over the environment in the room. The room is also full of resources that can help children—noise-canceling headphones in case things get too loud, a beanbag chair in the corner and fidget toys that an anxious child can hold onto or squeeze in the room or out in the sanctuary.
Ability Tree also offers a respite for families twice a month on Saturday nights. Parents can drop off both their child and his or her siblings for three hours, and each child is paired with a volunteer budd
y. The idea is to give parents a break. “Divorce rates are particularly high in this population, and we want to make sure the couple has time together, and single parents have time for themselves,” Schuberth said.
Volunteer training and orientation starts an hour before respite night begins. Gafgen says, “What we say is we are giving parents a rest, kids a rest from parents and therapy and, for volunteers, it is rest for them from the outside world.” The space for the respite care was donated by Everson’s Karate in Robbinsville. Space for the respite nights often fills up quickly.
“There is a huge need in this area,” Gafgen said. Louis adds that he and his colleagues at Ability Tree are available to speak at other churches who may be interested in providing much-needed respite care or in opening a sensory-friendly space.
Another effort toward inclusiveness of people with disabilities happens at Greco’s church on the Sunday that follows Ability Tree’s one-week camp for adults with disabilities. Greco describes that Sunday service as a “takeover,” creating a picture of what happens at camp through words and music and people with disabilities.
“It is probably the most fun Sunday of the year,” he said. “It gives people the opportunity to experience and see what a benefit it can be to be inclusive.”
Greco has noticed that people with certain disabilities may be particularly “authentic and sincere in their expression of worship” because “they don’t have that sense of what you think about them.” For example, they may jump, dance or give a high five in the middle of a song.
“I think that disarms a lot of people,” Greco said. “It can release the rest of the congregation to really find joy in ways they were limited before. It is a real gift to a congregation to welcome people of all abilities.”
The connection with Ability Tree happened when Greco invited its founder, Joe Butler, a college classmate, to share his work on a Sunday in 2014. For Schuberth, the talk was an eye opener.
“Throughout that service I felt that we really need to get involved with this; we needed to up our game,” she said.
A psychologist who grew up in East Brunswick, she has worked with children with disabilities since age 15. Her first venture was a job at a camp for children with disabilities. Then, while at Emory University as an undergraduate, she worked in the Emory Autism Center, where she got trained in applied behavior analysis (a therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors of people with autism). She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor of science in neuroscience and behavioral biology; in 2007 received a graduate certificate from Penn State University in ABA for special education; and in 2013 a doctorate in clinical psychology from Loyola University Maryland.
Schuberth’s first experience with Ability Tree was volunteering at Ability Camp in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She says, “Ability Tree is where I get to have fun, really connect with these individuals, and serve the family.”
For Gafgen, who as a preteen in a farming community in South Jersey was determined to be an astronaut, it was a psychology class at Buena Regional High School that aroused her interest in autism. Having seen the film Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic adult, she decided to do her psych paper on autism. A girl in her class introduced Gafgen to a family whose son was on the autism spectrum, and Gafgen says she was “amazed by what the family did” for their son.
That summer Gafgen volunteered at Camp Sun and Fun in Turnersville where she got experience spending time with adults who had all kinds of disabilities. “It was hard and uncomfortable at first,” she said, but she eventually decided to pursue a career in special education. She majored in psychology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, but was a semester short of a degree when her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury.
She worked as a classroom aide in the Delaware Autism Program and then got certified to work in early intervention and started doing ABA therapy in her junior year of college. She has also volunteered in camps for children with special needs.
Others in Gafgen’s family have also suffered from neurological issues: her daughter had an infection that affected her neurologically and, she says, “gave me insight into what parents go through”; and her nephew has cerebral palsy and has participated in Ability Tree’s respite program. At her previous church, she started a special needs ministry and when she contacted the township because she wanted to do a special needs expo, they connected her with Schuberth.
Louis, who works as a behavior analyst, learned about Ability Tree a few years ago when Greco was helping his sister move. His initiation into the disability community was through fieldwork as a psychology major at Rutgers University. Due to his time constraints he was placed in the Douglas Developmental Disability Center where initially, he says, “I had no idea what autism was, and I tried to get out of it every week.” But soon, he says, he “learned to love the population.
Louis started to work with families in their homes after school and saw the impact of disabilities on families. “I saw how hard it is to do everyday things—to take their son or daughter to get a haircut; the planning it took to go to a movie; and if they needed to go to Shop Rite to get bread, they had to go at the right time [and worry about] ‘What if my son wants chocolate and I don’t give it to him.’”
One thing Louis learned in his work with families was that many wanted to attend a church service, or had attended prior to their child being diagnosed with a disability. “There never seemed to be marriage of what I do for living and helping people access a faith community,” he says.
Greco grew up in Lawrence. He earned a bachelor of arts in Bible studies, with a major in pastoral ministry, at the University of Valley Forge. He has a master’s degree that he did online in ministry leadership through Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He served on the staff of Pennington Assembly of nine years, and in 2010 moved to Robbinsville to start Lifetree Community Church.
Although one of the core values of Lifetree Community Church is “we are better together,” Greco says, “I don’t know if everybody necessary believes that; they say that, but in practice we exclude. What we are trying to develop is a culture of inclusion.”
“It is not good enough to say it is too much work, or too hard, or you don’t know how,” Greco says. “If we don’t take steps to do this, you are telling families you don’t care, they are not worth your effort, and that’s not good enough.”