Having a child with special needs can thrust a parent into unknown territory. It’s a whole new world of thinking and living, but Salina Miller has embraced this journey and is helping others along the way. She is an outstanding advocate, not only for her son, but for many with disabilities and their families!
Salina Miller is the founder of Mother 2 Mother, which provides support, empowerment and educational services for mothers and caregivers of individuals with disabilities. Salina also works as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator for Milestones Autism Resources. It was my pleasure to interview Salina about her diverse advocacy experiences, both in and outside of the church.
The Word Church
Salina is a member of The Word Church, where Dr. R.A. Vernon serves as Pastor. The church was founded in 2000 and has over 30,000 members! Based in Ohio, The Word Church holds services at three locations in Warrensville Heights, Cleveland, and Akron.
Outreach is one of the church’s seven bedrock principles, which are based on Matthew 25:35-36. The church hosts school supply giveaways, free meals for persons in the Greater Cleveland area, a food pantry and clothing giveaways.
Members of the church can participate in over 20 different ministries. At this time, services are held virtually due to COVID-19. People from all over the world can view the church services on their YouTube channel.
A Journey of Advocacy
Salina has been a Christian for many years. She joined The Word Church in 2011 and worked for the church as part of the administrative staff. Over time, she noticed that there were many special needs families that needed support and resources in her local community. The need for this support stood out to Salina as a wife and mother to two sons. Her youngest son has autism, epilepsy, glaucoma and a rare blood disorder.
“I felt alone, but I wasn’t defeated. I felt like I was missing something. Are there other people that are on this journey with me and I just don’t know about it? The more that I got involved with my son’s school, the more that I started to meet other parents. I started giving them tips and they were giving me tips and tools. I was like, wow, there’s got to be more people.”Salina Miller
She also observed this issue at her church. These observations and feelings set the stage for something great to come!
“We are a large, predominantly African American church, but there was not a lot there for special needs families,” said Salina. “We know that [when] you see one or two, there are so many more. They just may not bring their children to church because the church is not equipped to service our family.”
Salina shared her concerns with a ministry leader at her church. The elder encouraged Salina, saying, “You know, it’s time for you to get that group started.” That conversation became the launching pad for Mother 2 Mother!
About Mother 2 Mother
Mother 2 Mother began in 2017, with a desire to strengthen mothers and caregivers and to assist them in becoming the best advocates for their loved ones with disabilities. There are four key areas of focus:
- Support – Monthly support groups
- Education – Trainings, Workshops and Special Events
- Empowerment – Confidence Building for Caregivers
- Churches – Disability Awareness Trainings
Mother 2 Mother has a Facebook Community and several core volunteers that have helped Salina take things to the next level!
Events Hosted By Mother 2 Mother
Many people think that it takes a lot to get a special needs ministry started, but Mother 2 Mother started off by utilizing guest speakers.
“I started off with a support group. We had it twice a month at the church. From there, I had people come in as guest speakers. We would have people come in and talk about IEP. I would have people come in and talk about the ABLE account. We also would have workshops with our Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. They would come in and talk about waivers and family support dollars. We’ve always made sure we have resources available [and] that we direct families in the right direction as far as when they need for support for their child or whoever they may be caring for.”Salina Miller
Once the organization started gaining traction, Salina realized that there was a need for even more activities! “We started to create family friendly events,” says Salina. “I came up with Artism, an arts and crafts project where we would bring families together. We would provide them with a dinner. The families loved it!”
Soon afterwards, Mother 2 Mother began hosting field trips and special events designed for special needs families. The Word Church supports the ministry by allowing the use of church vans and facility space.
Salina is passionate about the work of Mother 2 Mother, saying:
“I wanted to create a platform for families, for caregivers, a place that they can come to of refuge, a place that they can come to and find support amongst individuals who are sharing a similar journey as they are. It’s been great. We turned into this small family.”Salina Miller
Mother 2 Mother has expanded outside the walls of The Word Church. Prior to COVID-19, the group met at public libraries in various parts of Cleveland to reach more people. Now, the group meets via Zoom on Tuesdays.
In 2019, members of the group decided to take things to the next level.
A New Area of Outreach
One day, a member of Mother 2 Mother, Patricia Parker, expressed an interest in reaching out to predominantly Black churches in the Cleveland area. Her desire was to create opportunities for inclusion for individuals with disabilities, not just at their own church, but in others as well. Salina and Patricia developed a plan of outreach. They asked church leaders, “Do you have a special needs ministry? If not, what’s holding you back? What would you need?”
Salina and Patricia discovered that many of the churches felt that there was a certain amount of finances that had to be in place in order to make a difference. “We informed churches that you can play a part that doesn’t have to be a huge state of the art area,” says Salina.
Training at St. Timothy Missionary Baptist Church
In October 2019, Pastor Joshua Harris, Sr. and the members of St. Timothy Missionary Baptist Church, welcomed Mother 2 Mother with open arms! Members were taught how to adapt teaching methods for those with disabilities. They were also taught how to include individuals with disabilities into activities with their non disabled peers. A board was created to help guide the ministry in its efforts.
At the end of the training, Mother 2 Mother donated $1500 to St. Timothy Missionary Baptist Church to help get their special needs ministry started!
Salina is very happy about their first training experience at St. Timothy, saying, “They opened their heart as a community and as a church, wanting to be better at understanding disability and empathizing with the families in their church. They are taking the necessary steps to include special needs families, children, adults, etc, into how they operate their church. They want to make sure that they too understand how much God loves them and how much they are a part of the body of Christ, just like everybody else. There is no difference. They’re really embracing that.”
Mother 2 Mother had plans to do additional trainings at churches in the Cleveland area, but COVID-19 has temporarily halted their efforts. They hope to resume trainings at a later date.
Starting a Special Needs Ministry
I asked Salina what she would recommend for churches that are interested in starting a special needs ministry. She shared some wonderful advice!
“Starting off with even offering a support group is a great way to open the door and get feedback from families on what their church could do to support them. That’s kind of how we started. We started just trying to find out from families first, like what is it that you would like to see or what do you need from your church?”Salina Miller
Salina also explained that churches can provide assistance in the area of prayer and counseling for special needs families. “Some families may just need a pastor or an elder or someone of clergy to call just to check-in and maybe do prayer. We talked about having a prayer line specifically for families,” says Salina. “It’s tough being a husband and wife and raising a child with special needs. Especially if both of you are hurt, if both of you are struggling in this area, if one is accepting and one isn’t. It brings a lot of strife. Maybe you can offer a marriage counseling support group for special needs families.”
Helping Parents to Cope
I asked Salina how we can help families that struggle with the unfair stigma of raising a child with special needs. She encouraged parents to learn from others that are also on the journey and realize that it is okay.
“This doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Yes, it is still a difficult journey, just as a lot of other things in life that we may go through, but that is okay. You’re not alone and you didn’t do anything wrong. I think when it comes to our children who have autism or a disability, we as parents kind of look at it as we did something wrong. Something is wrong with us or something is wrong with our genes. [Let] them know that it is okay, and that you didn’t do anything wrong. There’s communities that are here for you that can help you.”Salina Miller
She also discussed the importance of being positive and learning about those with autism who are successful and doing great things!
“Bring up so many brilliant people who have autism! I think we talk about the negative so much, that we don’t talk about the positive. There are some wonderful people in the world who are successful and have autism. Switch around that negativity that’s been put on it so much with more positive cases. Show them more positive versus the negative.”Salina Miller
The Church’s Role in Fighting Against Stigma
Black children are more likely to receive a late diagnosis of autism. There are studies that have considered the impact of stigma as a potential barrier to early diagnosis rates among children of color. Salina shared several ideas as to how the church can help with this issue.
“I know a lot of times when it comes to the African American culture, some families are very hush hush and quiet. Some people are in denial. Some people are afraid. With some of our families, you literally have to walk them through the process. A lot of families may not have access to health care.
We did Special Needs Awareness Week [at The Word Church], where we had families who had no idea whether their child may have a special need. We spoke from the pulpit about possible signs of special needs. Maybe [have] educational forums, parent panels or just having certain resources available. We were just talking about maybe having [a] healthcare sign up day.”Salina Miller
Salina also emphasized the need to partner with schools. “I know some churches are partners with other school districts,” she says. “Maybe working with their Director of Special Needs to see how the church can be a voice. The church has a large platform. Be a place where children can get screened.”
Being an advocate in the local community is very important to Salina. She served as a Parent Representative for Ohio State Support Team 3 through her local school district. In this role, she helped to educate teachers about how to engage parents and get them more involved. She is currently getting certified to be a surrogate parent for children with IEPs through various school districts. This role will equip her to be an advocate during IEP meetings for children who may not have parents, that are homeless, or are wards of the state.
In her current role as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator at Milestones Autism Resources, Salina provides valuable feedback on how the agency can reach a more diverse population. She heads up a task force of Black parents that are working with police officers to educate them about interactions with disabled persons. In addition, she has spoken twice at the Milestones National Autism Conference, hosting parent panels.
We are so thankful for all of the work that Salina does to support those with disabilities and their families! The sky is the limit for her and we look forward to all of the wonderful things that she will continue to do to make our communities more inclusive. If you would like to connect with Salina Miller or learn more about Mother 2 Mother, please click here.
This is the second post in a series that highlights churches and advocates that serve special needs families. View our first feature on First Baptist Church of Glenarden here.