words by: Elaine Tomski
‘Tis the season of giving as people around the globe celebrate God’s gracious gift of His Son. The newborn King brought a piece of heaven to earth one starlit night. He became like us so we can become like Him—loving others and glorifying God. Two thousand years later, Christ’s love continues at Sacred Ground, where caring folks create spaces for people with special needs to thrive.
The Sacred Ground story begins with the gift of a vision. Was Moses dreaming when he saw a bush on fire, yet not burning up? No, Moses wasn’t dreaming. God became truly present to Moses in that blaze. God spoke, and Moses listened. God chose mere Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery. He obeyed, and God equipped. Moses’ life transformation began on sacred ground.
The dream of Sacred Ground was given to another of God’s servants. Griffin Long grew up noticing people on the edges. Throughout his school years, Griffin tried to bring in those people. He wanted to bring friends with special needs, who might not get the same recognition as their peers, into the broader community. One day, Griffin found a like-minded servant in Annie Slabach. They talked about their hopes for people with special needs, and Annie shared her ideas about the type of place she desired for her sister-in-law.
“What you’re describing is what I’ve always dreamed of doing!” said Griffin.
“Are you serious? Let’s do it!” replied Annie.
Soon the two invited other people with a similar vision into the dream. Karen Keim and Kathy Dickson joined Annie and Griffin to become the founding members of Sacred Ground. Together they listened and learned from the families and communities of adults with special needs to chart a path that might enhance the capacity for all to thrive. Nestled outside of Berlin, Ohio, in Eastern Holmes County, Sacred Ground’s mission is to cultivate an environment of belonging and purpose for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families. A faith-based program, Sacred Ground intentionally creates spaces where people can experience God, be changed, and set on a path toward thriving.
Griffin spent his undergraduate college years as a student in ministry. He said, “Through studying Mennonite theology and familiarizing myself with Anabaptist tradition, I had this desire to have a place where everyone can come and belong.” Then he worked in the mental health field and a group home for adults with special needs. Griffin’s heart, knowledge, and experience uniquely equip him to be Sacred Ground’s executive director. A leadership board adds the remaining skills required to make Sacred Ground function. Brad Vincent brings more than four decades of serving people with special needs to the boardroom table. Marlin Miller, publisher/businessman, Michelle Mishler, education intervention specialist, and Matt Troyer, director of finance, are included in the mix. Recently, three additional members have volunteered to serve. They include Ivan Keim, business owner; Rick Rottman, businessman; and Rhoda Mast, educator. In addition to the eight leaders’ lives and business skills, two of the members cherish their own children with special needs. The Sacred Ground leadership team provides a solid foundation for the program.
The Gift of God’s Timing
Once there’s a foundation, it’s time to build solid walls, and God knows the exact time for the construction. Sacred Ground’s history reveals the perfection of God’s timing. “I’ve said many times over the last few years that thankfully, God’s timing is better than mine,” Griffin admitted, “because I was in such a hurry! Even when I thought I was ready, I’ve come to learn I wasn’t.” It took five years to prepare for the first day of Sacred Ground.
In 2017, after the Sacred Ground founding members decided to act on their dream, they spent a few years putting plans into those dreams. Members visited several places to view programs already doing the things they hoped to do. The team watched, listened, and learned from Pennsylvania to Texas to Michigan. By early 2020, they were ready to involve the local community in the planning. The team invited families and interested parties to share their needs and dreams for adults with special needs in their lives. After community meetings in January, February, and March, Covid shut down the ability to meet in person. However, the team felt equipped to distribute a survey to the entire East Holmes community. Completed surveys revealed four primary needs for adults with special needs and their families.
- Opportunities for socialization
- Day programming
- Respite for families/a break for caregivers
“We have started by addressing these primary needs,” said Griffin. Additional needs mentioned in the survey remain in consideration for the future.
Finding a suitable space for Sacred Ground is another story of God’s timing. A large room, just right for their needs, was to be the starting place. But Griffin said, “That ended up falling through. I was very disappointed, wondering how we would ever find a place that compared.” One of the board members, who attends Grace Church in Berlin, spoke with their leaders to share the need. Grace Church generously offered the use of their space. So, Sacred Ground now has access to a gym, a handicap-friendly commercial kitchen, and a large classroom space. “It’s been wonderful,” said Griffin. “I never would have expected something like this right out of the gate!” In addition to a facility more perfect than he could imagine, God also provided the vehicles needed for transportation at the right time. Servanthood Ministries owns two vans they don’t use on weekdays, so they offered to share them with Sacred Ground.
Locating the right staff members also required a waiting period. Griffin said, “There was an initial delay in our launch because of a staffing problem. Then Martha came along. She has been an answer to prayer.” Griffin described Martha as one who is relaxed, patient, challenging, and encouraging. She gives participants the personal space they need to develop new skills and habits. “It takes a special person to begin with, but then to be the first staff person of a new program takes an even more special person.”
Once Martha was hired and trained, she and Griffin prepared Sacred Ground for its launch in April 2022. They met two days a week from 9:00–2:00 with five participants. Within a month, five more people wanted to come. They hired Bella to a full-time position and trained her before expanding to meet Monday through Friday. Megan was trained just in time to replace Bella who returned to school. Finally, Katie was hired and prepared for a part-time position. And Griffin said, “Here we are a couple of months later, and we have a waiting list. We’re on the cusp of going up to eight participants per day.”
Waiting on God’s timing once more, the leadership of Sacred Ground seeks a full-time program coordinator to help supervise and lead the program. Griffin said, “I feel like every day, every month, as I look back and reflect, there’s just so much evidence of God’s faithfulness and grace. I am thankful His timing is better than mine…
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Elaine Tomski is a wife, mother, grandma, and contributing writer for Plain Values magazine. She and her husband, Jeff, appreciate the beauty of God’s creation from their hilltop near Killbuck, Ohio. Elaine is the author of Pregnant and Praying, a prayer journal for expectant mothers.