When Amanda Coleman responded to a friend’s invitation to visit a faith-based program for families with special needs, she didn’t know what to expect. Coleman, who doesn’t consider herself religious, recognized the importance of finding support as she and her family waded through medical information, daily challenges, and discouraging discourse about her son’s diagnosis. So, she decided to give it a try—and was pleasantly surprised.

Coleman and her son received a warm welcome into a broad-based faith community that offers a variety of programs for families.

“The medical stuff is so muddled and uncomfortable,” Coleman says. “For parents finding themselves in that spot, the inclusivity and support are very appealing. Anyone can participate — whether you believe [in God] or don’t. If you’re having a tough time finding a niche, the faith community in San Diego offers many options.”

Here are some of San Diego County’s faith-based programs for families with special needs.

For Young Adults

Dan’s Place Restaurant

Once a month, the chef at Dan’s Place Restaurant creates a menu that adults and young adults with special needs prepare and serve to hungry diners. Part of the Friendship Circle program at the Chabad of Poway, participants learn vocational skills for the hospitality industry while working alongside volunteers. A recent grant to expand the program means even more young people will be equipped with job skills while having fun, making friends, and delivering a restaurant-quality kosher meal that often sells out. The Friendship Circle offers a variety of other social and recreational experiences for all ages, including summer camps, inclusion workshops and dozens of volunteer opportunities. For more information about Dan’s Place Restaurant, including when they will be open for monthly dinners again, visit www.friendshipcirclesd.com.

Radically Inclusive Holiday Gift Fair

Young entrepreneurs develop business skills while promoting and selling their products at the Radically Inclusive Holiday Gift Fair hosted annually by The Church at Rancho Bernardo.

“When kids age out of the public school system, the options are very limited,” says event organizer Margie Flores. “Some, mine included, start micro-businesses, and this is one way to promote it.” By pairing vendors with friends and mentors who share the same passion, the gift fair provides opportunities to form ongoing relationships that nurture growing businesses.

For information about this year’s holiday gift fair, email margie1515@san.rr.com or andreamoriarty@mac.com.

For Teens

Young Life Capernaum

Young Life (the “umbrella organization” to Capernaum) is all about building relationships with teens through fun, adventures and friendship. Capernaum gives teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities the chance to experience that same relationship-building fun and adventure through its dedication to accessibility and inclusion.

“Teens and families with special needs don’t always have a lot of people looking to have relationships with them,” says Regional Director Tobias Haglund. “At Capernaum, we care for them as friends. We want to enjoy life with them and be a part of the dynamic of who they are as a family.” Find out more at www.younglife.org/ForEveryKid/Capernaum.

For Kids of All Ages


Under normal circumstances, art lovers of all ages gather at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Coronado on a monthly basis to create art while spending time with friends. Participants are invited to bring a current art project or use materials provided. Open HeARTS is one of many services, including a monthly parent/caregiver support group, offered through the church’s Exceptional Families Ministry. Find more information at www.sacredheartcor.org/parish-life/parish-outreach/exceptional-families-ministry.

Rock Church Miracle 139

When things get “back to normal”, check in with Miracle 139 Outreach, which will hopefully resume parent support groups, parent date nights, fellowship events, resource workshops and other community events. Sunday services at several Rock Church locations offer accessible classrooms or Buddy Support in general classrooms. Check the website for updated information at www.sdrock.com/ministries/miracle139 or email miracle139@sdrock.com for details.

A Growing Community

Friends of L’Arche

Thanks to the combined passions of several local families whose kids with special needs are approaching adulthood, this international federation of communities is coming to San Diego. L’Arche gives adults (with and without disabilities) the opportunity to share life and friendship by living together in family life structures.

“Our vision is to have multiple homes throughout the county where people will live and interact with the community,” says parent-organizer Andrea Moriarty. “We also hope to open a centrally located friendship center offering programs and support. We’re looking for families and community professionals to come alongside us to bring this vision to life.”

This emerging spiritual community is experiencing a groundswell of support and awareness through fun quarterly events, including a film festival, mural painting and bonfire. Get updated information by emailing andreamoriarty@mac.com and find out more about the L’Arche mission at www.larcheUSA.org.

An Open Door

Families with special needs have an open invitation from the diverse faith community in San Diego County. “These are safe, inclusive, non-judgmental places where you can make friends and connections and get the support you and your family need,” says Coleman.

Tonya Langdon from Skyline Church, whose inclusive program tailors to fit the unique needs of every child, says it comes down to just one thing: “We pull out all the stops to make sure families know they are welcomed and loved.” Please note: Some programs may be on hold (or online only) until the pandemic is more under control and people are able to gather safely.

Jody Lee Cates is a local mom and award-winning writer who is passionate about connecting parents to helpful resources.

For additional faith-based programs, visit the Worship section of Flourishing Families.