side by side ministry
Side by Side Executive Director David Sittser (guitar) and Side-by-Sider Mitchell lead in singing at the Halloween Huddle / Photo by John McCallum (SpokaneFāVS)

Spokane’s Side by Side Ministry Brings People With & Without Disabilities Together in Friendship

Spokane’s Side by Side Ministry Brings People With & Without Disabilities Together in Friendship

This news story was made possible by contributions to FāVS from readers like you. Thank you.

By John McCallum

At Spokane’s Side by Side Ministry, the words “volunteer” and “client” don’t really exist.

Instead, people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD) and those without such challenges who have come alongside them in friendships have created their own term: Side-By-Siders.

“What we want to do is to draw these groups together that otherwise might be separated,” Side by Side Executive Director and co-originator David Sittser said. “What we want to do is have them brought together in friendship.”

Side by Side origins

The concept of Side by Side originated with Sittser’s work following seminary at Duke University Divinity School. The Whitworth graduate spent eight years as director of community development at Reality Ministry in Durham, North Carolina.

The mission of Reality Ministry — and now Side by Side — is to “create opportunities for adults with and without developmental disabilities to experience belonging, kinship and the life-changing reality of Christ’s love.” People with I/DD often lead lives separate from the rest of society, or as stated on Side by Side’s website, “travel through life in a separate lane.”

According to statistics from the Health Research Funding organization, up to 7.7 million people in the U.S. have at least a mild developmental disability affecting their lives in some way. Furthermore, the U.S. has seen a 17% increase in the amount of developmental disabilities diagnosed in children since 2000, with 28% of those with some form of I/DD currently living in poverty.

Seeking to return to his hometown of Spokane, and perceiving a “sense of great need in the community” for an organization with a similar mission as Reality Ministry, Sittser hooked up with two friends from Whitworth: Janet Neder and Ryan Tjelle.

Neder, whose husband was Sittser’s theology professor at Whitworth, studied special education at Vanderbilt University while Tjelle had worked at Young Life’s program for people with I/DD, Capernaum, and had also interned as a Whitworth student at Reality Ministry with Sittser.

The trio began making plans to begin Side by Side with an emphasis on creating space through programs and activities where people with I/DD and those without are drawn together in friendships impactful to both parties. They established core values where “relationships are based on sharing a common humanity (Mutuality),” a positive culture and associated programs (Beauty), gathering as equals (Hospitality) and providing the time and ability to generate attention to each other to learn more about each other “God, and the world around us (Discovery).”

Such relationships help to open people’s minds and broaden their perspectives about life, Neder said, noting this type of different thinking can help answer deeper questions about what is important in life.

“It’s not about productivity, material things, or any of that,” said Neder, who is Side by Side’s operations director. “We know that, but it’s easier to see that when you’re rubbing shoulders with people whose gifts are overlooked.”

Positives and negatives opening under COVID

Side by Side kicked off in October 2019 in what Sittser said “turned out to be terrible timing.” The organization had barely begun getting members and launching programs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in late January 2020.

Starting just before the pandemic proved both a negative and a positive. On one side, restrictions on gatherings meant to curtail the spread of the virus hindered growth of the organization.

On the positive side, Side by Side’s mission establishing equal connections and friendships proved invaluable to an I/DD population used to being isolated, and now isolated further.

“In some ways, it made people closer,” Neder said. “People needed the support.”

One of those involved daytime devotional gatherings. These began as in-person weekly gatherings with a light meal, but since they had to be held via Zoom because of the pandemic, people would be eating different things, if they ate at all.

Neder and other Side-By-Siders decided to make deliveries of the food they were slated to eat so everyone could enjoy the same level of fellowship.

“We’d drop off soup and bread so we could all eat the same thing on Zoom a couple hours later,” she said.

side by side ministry
Side by Side Common Prayer gathering / Contributed

The morning (common) prayer meetings also moved to Zoom and continue that way today. Neder said the move online actually led to more people joining the prayer meetings, which feature a Scripture, listening to music and viewing artwork associated with the reading being discussed followed by reflection and prayer.

According to Side by Side’s website, the morning prayer “liturgy is accessible for, and led by, people of all abilities.”

Steps were taken in accordance with pandemic restrictions to continue the evening programs as well as special events such as monthly trips to a local farm and a yearly retreat. Small “companion pods” were developed so people could meet outside of larger gatherings for “home groups,” while the larger weekly get together called “Huddle” at Salem Lutheran Church on Broadway in West Spokane and other gatherings were held outside when weather permitted.

“Even sometimes when the weather wasn’t good,” Sittser said. “We used a lot of portable heaters.”

Sittser said they were fortunate to have a couple of months prior to COVID to get these program up and running. They took a very cautious approach during the pandemic, and while that slowed the organization’s initial growth, it was worth it.

“I felt like it was always a tough needle to thread,” Sittser said of the restrictions. “But it was important to have people who were isolated and alone to feel connected somehow.”

Spreading the word of Side by Side

Connecting with Side by Side is largely through word of mouth. Sittser said that creates a challenge with one of the organization’s goals of getting equal numbers of people without I/DD and with a disability involved.

Side bBy Side utilizes networks with local churches to find volunteers without I/DD. While it is nondenominational, it has been designated a “validated ministry” by the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest (PIN).

A validated ministry is essentially a technical term, PIN Executive Director Sheryl Kinder-Pyle said. It means if someone working in that ministry wished to become ordained in the church, they could do so through that process, such as pastors working at Sacred Heart Medical Center as chaplains, Christian counselors or professors at Whitworth.

“Side by Side is one of our exciting new meanings of church,” Kinder-Pyle said, adding the other two are Growing Neighbors and Feast World Kitchen. “It’s the Holy Spirit alive and at work.”

Side by Side first contacts local churches to introduce themselves to that church’s leadership and then to offer to do a church worship service as a larger introduction to that congregation. Sittser said the introductions can take some time since the intent is to develop partnerships where people are familiar with each other, feel comfortable and want to get involved.

“Side by Side wouldn’t just go in cold to a church and do a service,” he added. “We want to connect first and discuss opportunities.”

Some individuals with I/DD do come to Side by Side via this route, but Sittser said mostly they hear about the organization through involvement in other activities they attend or from treatment sessions they may be going through. This typically comes from others who are already involved in Side by Side. Some have told Sittser they are more comfortable participating in Side by Side than they are their current church.

“They want to discover God’s love, love for one another, but do so in a way other than traditional church,” he added.

Church networking and word of mouth has brought over 100 people into the Side by Side family, Sittser said, with about 60 participants with I/DD paired with 30 volunteers. Several families have joined as well, with people from as far away a Yakima and north of Spokane taking part.

Huddling together in friendship

Neder said people with I/DD often get shuttled to separate lanes of life soon after graduating high school, receiving only visits from paid therapy staff and maybe family.

Statistics bear that out. According to Health Research Funding, 1 in 4 people with I/DD will not graduate from high school, with 61.7% of adults with I/DD reporting they could see their family members whenever they want. Additionally, work is often hard to come by, with the current unemployment rate for people with I/DD who have looked for a job at least once in the last 12 months at 33.5%, and 82.2% of this population demographic overall being unemployed.

Finally, adults with some form of I/DD are more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle and seven times more likely to report inadequate emotional support than people without a disability.

For Side-By-Sider Mitchell (whose last name was withheld for security reasons), joining the organization helped him beat some of those statistics. A 2014 graduate of Central Valley High School, Mitchell has been working at Mirabeau Point Hotel for the past five years and is currently taking some courses at Spokane Community College.

Dressed in a Spiderman costume and in between mouthfuls of baked potato topped with chili — among other items — at Side by Side’s Halloween Huddle get together Oct. 26, Mitchell said he was encouraged to join Side by Side about a year ago by Tjelle, who oversees Huddle meetings and special events. Mitchell only attends Huddle meetings, mainly because he likes the music, adding it helps get him out of the house, where he lives with his younger brother.

“When I’m not here (Huddle), I usually stay at home,” Mitchell said. “I also like it because I meet friends.”

side by side ministry
Side-By-Siders mingle prior to dinner at Side by Side’s Halloween Huddle / Photo by John McCallum (SpokaneFāVS)

The Huddle felt more like a family get together for dinner than it did a meeting. People with and without I/DD, some in costume and some not, greeted each other eagerly, with lots of laughter, hugging and merry banter. Besides the meal, the Huddle included a Halloween costume parade, followed by continuation of a discussion on scripture centered around “Fruits of the Spirit” and topped off at the end with singing. During dinner, Mitchell helped collect cards that individuals had written things they wanted to share with the 70-plus people during the “Friends News” segment.

Tjelle and volunteer Side-By-Sider Andrew Sonneland read the various notes, which ranged from the excitement of fixing a toilet by themselves to attending events such as the Oct. 28 Washington State football game with Utah or going to a dance or movie with a friend.

Volunteer Karen Colvin from Knox Presbyterian Church said some of those Friends News notes were about friendships established through Side by Side. Colvin added that her friend who was at the Huddle in costume, had earlier in the day teamed up on a weekly delivery of food for Growing Neighbors.

“Connections are being made,” Colvin said.

Sittser said these types of extensions of Side by Side can be facilitated outside of organized meetings in order to cultivate deeper friendships, as long as those relationships are done safely for both parties.

“That’s one of the great things in life, is furthering those relationships,” he added.

It’s something denied to people without I/DD because of separate life lanes of travel.

“Those of us without I/DD don’t often get opportunities to develop relationships with people with I/DD,” Neder said. “I think for me, I see my life enriched by people who are different from me.”

Side by Side’s future dreams

With pandemic restrictions eased, Side by Side is in a position to grow even more. Much of the previous growth took place organically, Sittser and Neder said, which has led to a bit of an imbalance in the numbers of individuals with I/DD and without. They hope to find ways to change that going forward, becoming more “intentional” in growth.

Funding is also an issue. Being a validated ministry of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest has helped, and Sittser said they also benefit from “small to medium” sized donors, some who contribute several times over the year and 76 who do so monthly. The organization is also fortunate to have received funding from a small family foundation that provided seed money to get started.

“Starting a ministry in the last several years has seemed like starting a fire in the rain,” Sittser said. “It’s exhausting, and you’re constantly feeding it fuel.”

But like every Boy Scout knows, he added, it’s when it’s raining that you need that fire the most. Helping out in this regard is the organization’s recent hiring of an administrative coordinator to help handle the “nuts and bolts” of operating a nonprofit, freeing Sittser, Neder and Tjelle to pursue larger challenges and take advantage of a place Neder said Side by Side is in where it can “dream a little bit” about the future.

For Sittser, the goal is making sure Side by Side is always “mission specific” by staying geared towards helping facilitate friendships between those with I/DD and those without.

“The goal is the process,” he said. “We do want to grow, but volume is not the goal. We want to have an impact on the community of Spokane in a unique way.”

“Everybody is volunteering their time whether they have disabilities or not,” Neder said. “We’re all Side-by-Siders. We’re just friends.”

Side by Side Volunteer Drive

Side by Side Ministry is seeking volunteers from people without intellectual/developmental disability to come alongside members in friendship who do. The goal of the December 2022 – January 2023 is to bring 20 or more new volunteers alongside these individuals who often walk a separate path in life.

Side by Side volunteers are central this ministry, because they build wonderful friendships with participants and make the programs better.

If you would like to get a feel for Side by Side, join them as a visitor for an upcoming SBS holiday event:

·         Christmas Party, Dec. 13, 6 – 7:30 p.m., St. Luke Lutheran Church
·         Tuesday Huddles, Jan. 10, 17, 24 and 31, 6 – 7:30 p.m., Salem Lutheran Church

For more information and to RSVP for an event, go to the Side by Side website.

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