By Steve & Tanja Pankratz in Bulgaria — Seven years ago, God rocked our world when he gave us a son with Down syndrome. With the loving support of our church family in Sofia, Bulgaria, we mourned this new reality and wondered how it would affect our calling to serve as missionaries.

Thrust into the world of special needs children in Bulgaria, we quickly became aware of the dire situation these families face. First we were scolded that we didn’t do prenatal screening so that we could abort; then we were told to give up our precious baby missionary kid to the orphanage since he would otherwise ruin our lives. We received no information about our child’s condition and our new reality; we weren’t told where to find resources. We were released into a world of complete unknown and fright.

We reached out for information from the States and received a friendly “New Parent Packet” — which we immediately translated into Bulgarian and distributed to parents of Down syndrome children, hoping to ease their transition. As we gathered and met more parents who had made the hard choice here in Bulgaria to keep their children despite no support, we felt a great desire to help start a Down Syndrome Parent Association, which meets regularly, invites educational speakers, and does awareness campaigns, annual conferences and summer family camps.

The Pankratz family helped launch the Down Syndrome Parent Association in Bulgaria.

This organization has been a wonderful practical support to these families, which now number more than 100 from all over Bulgaria. But as the only Christians on the board of the organization, it became increasingly difficult for us to implement biblical values and principles. We began praying about how God could involve the Bulgarian church in this work.

He is so faithful. Members of our family of faith — Holy Trinity Church in Sofia — have offered to help with many Down Syndrome Parent Association events. In the process, God has opened their hearts to special needs families and children, and has given them a desire to more directly serve such families.

They got their chance when Holy Trinity hosted a special needs family camp. Anyone familiar with these kinds of camps knows that it takes an army to run one. Before we knew it, we had close to 20 volunteers from our small church body who were willing to give up their work time to serve as personal assistants to the children.

We all felt green, with little to no expertise in this area — but “when we are weak, he is strong.” It didn’t matter one bit that we had little experience, because our love and Christ’s power worked in an incredible way to make these families feel blessed, cared for, loved, and touched as they listened to Christian speakers, engaged in fun family activities and competitions, and enjoyed fellowship with the church volunteers and with other special needs families.  

Through tears, parents shared:

  • “Where will I find people like this in this world?”
  • “My daughter has never been so happy in her life!”
  • “We have never attended anything like this before.”
  • “My husband and I haven’t done a romantic picnic like this in the last 10 years.”
  • “Can this camp be two weeks long next year?”

It was obvious that God’s Spirit was felt, not only by the families, but also by the church volunteers who felt a deep unity and love.

Tanja connects with a child at the special-needs center.

Our church’s desire to minister to these families didn’t end when camp came to a close. Holy Trinity has registered a foundation, New Steps, and has started offering a visitation program, school assistants, and a special needs day center.

We open our parent group meetings with a devotional from the Bible, and in our daily interactions we look for — and find — opportunities to share our faith with these dear families. We invite them to church outreaches and our annual special needs camp, all of which are means for us to share the source of our hope and love.

We recently hosted a top Christian neurodevelopmentalist from the US who trained our staff, spoke to the parents and evaluated the children. Her therapeutic approach encourages parents to be active in the development of their children, looks at the underlying causes for manifested problems, and was something these families have never experienced. But most importantly, her 10-day visit was a powerful witness of a Christian giving her time and expertise to serve and show God’s love.

Early on in our journey with our son, our pastor’s wife challenged us: “Could it be for such a time as this?” — and we thank God for giving us opportunities both to minister to Bulgaria’s special needs children and to engage our church with these precious families. There is no one person driving this vision; rather, God has formed it through us as a church. What the end product will look like, we do not know. But what we do know is that we, as Holy Trinity Church in Sofia, want to be the hands and feet of God in reaching these special needs families for Christ.

Focus on third culture kids: As children in many parts of the world return to school, The Missions Blog will spend September exploring the unique ways third culture kids experience this world and how God uses missionary children to communicate his love.

The Pankratz family’s story will be one of many shared at our Global Missions Banquet this Thursday, September 14, in Livonia, Michigan. You are welcome to attend! Please RSVP here.  


You might also be interested in