A flood of people are descending on Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney Olympic Park, Homebush, this week for Hillsong Conference 2019.
Away from the thousands and thousands of people, in a neat white “cottage”, a small team is calmly preparing a quiet space for a handful of children.
“It’s about creating a space where they feel calm and relaxed.” – Lyndelle MacDowall
This is the base for “Treasure Chest”, Hillsong’s programme for children living with disabilities.
At the conference this year, there are around 25 children in the programme – a larger contingent than ever before. Most are integrated into the kids programme (Kidsong) or the young adults’ programme (Young & Free) with the help of a “buddy” to provide assistance where needed.
Meanwhile, eight children requiring special support are taking part in the Treasure Chest programme for the whole conference, including three kids with cerebral palsy.
“It’s really exciting because we’ve never had children with cerebral palsy come to conference before, so I’m really championing their parents,” says Lyndelle MacDowall, coordinator of the Treasure Chest programme and member of Hillsong’s pastoral care staff team.
Assisted by 20 volunteers, MacDowall is also thrilled that some children from last conference’s Treasure Chest programme are back again this year. “It means that the parents really found that it was a win for them,” she tells Eternity. One family has trekked all the way from Darwin, and others have travelled from across Australia.
The demountable “cottage”, where the Treasure Chest day programme is held, has been especially brought in. So too have toys and resources. Along the balcony, blue flags wave a welcome in the breeze and, stepping inside, children are invited in by bright artwork and affirming messages on the walls. There also is an array of sensory toys, dinosaurs, train sets and a sand-play pit.
A similar set-up has been replicated in several private suites in the Qudos Bank Arena for night-time sessions. This means that, along with the VIPs, Treasure Chest parents can sit in the suites, while their children engage in their programme in a room just behind them (making parents easily accessible when children are tired at the end of a long day).
In both the cottage and the suites, one of the rooms has been designed as a “calm space”, with a tepee for kids to sit in, fluffy rugs on the floor, sequinned cushions and strings of soft fairy lights. This is particularly important for those with autism who can feel overwhelmed by noise and activity.
For the night-time suites in the main arena, MacDowall has also invested in more sets of headphones to help dampen the loud conference sessions outside.
“It’s about creating a space where they feel calm and relaxed,” MacDowall explains, noting that the different textures of the rugs and cushions are intentionally chosen to offer kids a sensory experience.
“Sensory time” is in fact one element of Hillsong’s four-part Treasure Chest programme, which is modelled on the “Champions Club” created by Lakewood Church in the US. The other three parts are active time, worship time and learning time.
“The goal with the four different activities is that it helps their whole development – so they have gross motor skills in the active zone [some of the kids get a turn on jumping castles and other play equipment]; calming/sensory can help with fine motor skills, feeling different textures; worship, of course, [is] spiritual development; and learning is about their cognitive development.”
“‘If you give me a room, I’ll start a programme.’ And so, she did.” – Lyndelle MacDowall
Treasure Chest launched its own curriculum three weeks ago, based on that used by Hillsong Kids junior programme. It was developed by a team including special education teachers, and is designed to be adapted to each child’s different level of understanding and individual requirements.
While MacDowall has only been overseeing the Treasure Chest programme for a few years, it has been running at Hillsong for 13 years.
“It was started by a mum with a small child with autism who wasn’t coping in kids programme. He would just scream because of the sound and the lights,” she explains. “She wrote to one of our pastors at the time and said, ‘If you give me a room, I’ll start a programme. And so, she did. It literally started in a room with a box of toys.”
MacDowall continues: “As the church grew, we actually ran out of space at the Hills campus. For four or five years, we rented an occupational therapy centre … That space was a real blessing for us because it had all the equipment that the children needed. When we built the ‘epicentre’ at Hills about two-and-a-half years ago, we actually modelled [the Treasure Chest areas] on the therapy centre.”
Now, on an ordinary Sunday at Hillsong’s Hills Campus, around 55 kids take part in Treasure Chest across its six services.
“I love seeing the children are comfortable, calm and relaxed, and they get to learn that Jesus loves them. And I love that parents get to go into the service and be strengthened themselves,” MacDowall enthuses.
“Some parents will tell us that the hour and a half that they’re in church is the only break they’ll have all week. We love that we can do that,” she adds, noting that every couple of months they run an extended Treasure Chest programme and provide morning tea for parents so they “have the opportunity to connect and find community, encouragement and fellowship, and realise they’re not alone.”
“The moment I started doing Treasure Chest, I thought … this is my calling.” – Lyndelle MacDowall
Kids and parents aren’t the only ones who feel blessed by being part of Treasure Chest. “I’ve been working in pastoral care for ten years and I always liked it. But the moment I started doing Treasure Chest, I thought … this is my calling,” says MacDowall, who is also a trained speech pathologist.
But her biggest reward is seeing the change in kids who have been part of the programme.
“We have this beautiful little girl who has autism. She was diagnosed when she was about three. She never coped in our Cubbyhouse programme [which is for one to three year olds]. She spent the whole time in the sandpit and wouldn’t leave it or her parents would sit with her in the car because she wouldn’t go in.”
“We transitioned her just before she turned four to Treasure Chest … And she’s gone from that child who used to scream and not participate in anything to she runs in with a big smile, she says hello to everybody, she sings all the worship songs, and she just engages … She’s now almost six and her language has improved as well. Her parents can see her developing and that she’s excited to come, and they say spends all week talking about Treasure Chest.”
The boy for whom Treasure Chest was originally started by his mum, is now 20. He serves on MacDowall’s team. “He’s studying engineering and is in his third year. He’s getting high distinctions and he’s doing so well,” she says.
Another young man living with disability benefits from the programme as well, after his mum (who is not yet a Christian) has brought him along for the past year. “She said to us, ‘He loves coming. I never see him so calm as he is at Treasure Chest.’ We all know that that’s the presence of God he’s encountering at some level. Somehow, the Holy Spirit is revealing himself to him.”
“Mum doesn’t understand that yet, but she will,” says MacDowall.
While she used to describe Treasure Chest as “Hillsong’s best kept secret”, MacDowall says this is no longer the case. More and more families hear about the way it’s transforming the lives of children and families. She encourages other churches who have not yet adapted programmes for kids living with disabilities to get on board.
“You can be creative with what you have – even with limited resources. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s actually very accessible, and churches can absolutely do it. Sometimes they just need to know where to start.”
She suggests starting with a shopping trip to get a tepee, a fluffy rug, sequinned cushions, some dinosaurs, a beanbag and some fidget toys.
MacDowall concludes: “I genuinely think that families can find breakthrough. Church is about bringing the hope and love of Jesus to all situations, and we’re just one tiny little piece of that puzzle.”