Created in the Image of God – Access Ministries shines light on the gift of disability

Rebecca Lang

At 20 years old, Heather was just looking to serve at a Girl Scout summer camp and save up some money. Instead, when an organization that serves adults with disabilities rented out the camp, God revealed His calling and purpose for her life, and the trajectory of what she imagined her life to be changed drastically.

The next semester, she changed her major and began working with that organization as its summer camp director. She has since cultivated an incredible ministry that serves individuals and families that live with special needs, known at Northland as Access Ministries.

Heather Subbert’s journey with Access began just over nine years ago when she was pregnant with her third child. Then, she met with Laura Lee Wright about volunteering to serve in Northland’s disability ministry. Soon after Samuel was born, Heather and her husband, Bryan, began teaching the pre-K kids.

Historically, Access was part of Children’s Ministries, but as the kids grew, so did the ministry.

“Once they had a mustache, we couldn’t send them home, but we also couldn’t keep them in the fifth-grade classroom,” Marty Tracey says. From this problem the Upper Room emerged, and folks such as Rick and Carol Rome, Anne Marie Sargent, and many other volunteers and staff members joined Heather and Marty in sharing the gospel and creating a welcoming environment for adolescents and adults with disabilities.

Heather is now the Access Ministries director, and her paramount goal is to help individuals with disabilities, and the families that love them, engage in the church community the same way everybody else does. That’s why Heather will tell you the time between the Upper room and worship is the most important time for that crew. They hang out at Nature’s Table and eat breakfast together, enjoy fellowship and say hello to their Northland family members who stop by to greet them. She and her team endeavor to make sure their friends attend and are supported in the Middle School and High School ministries with buddies, and provide support for adults in joining classes, Bible studies and connection groups.

That’s how Anne Marie became involved. She admitted that after her first few visits, she wasn’t sure about making Northland her home church. It was only after a couple of “epiphany moments” that she knew God was calling her family here. Her first weekend in worship was also the first FaithAbility Sunday morning Bible study for adults with intellectual disabilities and their family and friends.

Not long after that, during an “Ask the Pastor” time in worship, a young man stood up and asked, “What about me, a man with special needs? Does God have something for my life?” Pastor Joel enthusiastically responded, “Yes! God does have a purpose for you, and we are here to help you find and explore what that purpose is.” His answer resonated deeply with Anne Marie and her adult daughter Julia, who has special needs. They both knew they were exactly where God wanted them.

Today Anne Marie and Julia both serve in and are served by Access. Anne Marie is on staff and works closely with Community Arts Connection, Upper Room, Buddy Break and more! She loves people who have special needs because God created them. Whether or not Julia is part of that group, Anne Marie feels called to serve and care for them.

“Don’t be afraid to interact. They have so much to offer,” she says. “We miss it because we are afraid we won’t understand them, won’t know what to say. They are the most loving and forgiving people on the earth. They just want to be loved. They have the same needs as everyone else, to be loved, needed and cared for.”

No matter whom you talk to in Access Ministries, whether staff or volunteer, one thing is certain: They view disability as a gift. They know their friends are created in the image of God with a purpose and plan for the Kingdom. They realize that sometimes the focus is only on the limitations, and they feel responsible for helping parents and other family members (and even our congregation) recognize the gifts God put in their kids and adults to build His Kingdom. They know when God knit us in the womb, He made no mistakes. Not one.

Their love for this ministry and the families in it is palpable. They know the biggest gift they can give to the parents, and to the adults in the program, is an outside voice that reminds them that their children are beautifully and wonderfully made with a purpose.

While working in Access Ministries, Heather has learned that disability is a gift that draws us closer to the heart of God. She believes it makes people more aware of who He is and helps them be more dependent on Him.

For Marty, the journey has taught her the nature of God. She’s grateful to have a whole new group of forever friends she would not know otherwise and would feel incomplete without knowing.

“If you don’t have people like this in your community, you’re missing out on something God has given to the world,” she says. “I have a whole new wedding party!”

As cliché as it might sound, the people who serve get as much, or more, out of serving with Access. It’s transformative because this community represents God in a way that most people never get to experience. The church is incomplete without this beautiful community of believers.

To learn more about the impact Heather and her team have on families with disabilities, read the article “Letting Their Light Shine”.

To learn more about Access and all the amazing things this ministry offers, go to Better yet, check out the ways you can get involved and serve our Access individuals and families!