Shelley Neal and Debbie Sutherland

It’s 7:00 am in Toronto on a chilly December morning as I climb into my car and head towards Bloorview School Authority where Shelley Neal and Debbie Sutherland work with children with exceptional needs. I don’t generally schedule meetings for 7:15 am in the morning, but when I realized how busy Shelley and Deb were it was easy to make an exception. They give me a quick tour of innovative facilities of both the school and the Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital where many of their young students are from. Surprisingly, we’re not meeting to talk about the reasons why camera news crews are on site that morning: the  cutting-edge technology used in rehabilitation or the stirring stories of so many children receiving treatment at the hospital or education in the school. We’re there to talk about what Shelley and Deb do in their “off-time.”

Passionate about serving God and children with special needs, Shelley and Deb began a rEcess ministry at their church, Kingsway Baptist. There, one Saturday evening a month, parents who have children with special needs are invited to drop off all of their children and go on a date to reconnect or simply have time to rest and recharge.

It was October 19th, 2013 when they began this ministry and it has been going strong since. The fact that it has grown 11 children from 7 families to 35 children from 24 families in the span of a year speaks to the profound need for families to find support in their local church. Parents’ comments range from , “I can’t remember when we were out last,” to “Why are you doing this?” and “We can’t believe it’s free.”


Everyone loves Ace, the Toronto Blue Jay mascot. rEcess was visited by the mascots of all major league sports teams in Toronto this past year.

There has been overwhelming response not only from families who benefit from the service but from community partners, such as SupperWorks Etobiko who donate dinner for volunteers (children bring their own food to accommodate various dietary needs), and from the diverse volunteer base who eagerly provide 1:1 support – not only for children with special needs but for typically developing siblings as well. Many of the large activities, such as a bouncey castle, have been bought at reduced cost from people on Kijiji excited to help out or are donated. Gift cards for parents to go on a date are another way that the community helps out, a way of saying “this night is for you, too.”

One of the potential hurdles for churches when thinking of starting a respite program is the feeling of “Where do we even start?”

99BalloonsThe beauty of the rEcess model, established by 99 Balloons, is that no one needs to start from scratch. While Shelley and Deb run the only “Canadianized” version of rEcess, there are 20 running throughout North America. Even though the program is church-owned, the framework provided by 99 Balloons has been “wonderful” with “amazing support” according to Debbie. There are regular conference calls for problem-solving and they are quick to update forms, the online registration form or resources which might previously have referred to American content or guidelines.

Despite the tremendous advocacy and initiative of Shelley and Deb, they are quick to point out that it is not a “one man show” and the importance of a good core leadership team. As advice for churches thinking about starting a rEcess model, they spoke to the importance of a strong prayer base, how crucial it is to form positive and honest relationships with families and volunteers, and the need to train and empower volunteers. With a good infrastructure in place, volunteers can essentially “run it on their own.”

Listening to the difference that rEcess is making in the lives of families impacted by special needs, both in and out of the Kingsway church community, I wish that Shelley and Deb could be transplanted into hundreds of churches across the province. They are remarkable people who have chosen to serve God where they’re at.

The reality is, though, that there are thousands of people throughout the province and country who are also remarkably gifted to serve God where they are. It may not look exactly like rEcess at Kingsway, but that’s the beauty of gifting. 

As I thank my hosts for our time together, early as it may be, Deb says “It’s actually pretty easy,” referring to their work with rEcess. At first I look at her incredulously, thinking back to her descriptions of the amount of work that goes into a program like this. Then I am reminded of the number of volunteers, partners, and supporters that have come alongside to join them in this work. I suppose if we’re all on board it does make the work easy – especially in light of the encouragement and positive impact it can have on families experiencing God’s love in a tangible way.

The video below is about rEcess from 99 Balloons. It doesn’t feature Kingsway specifically, but may help you catch a glimpse into the possibility of hosting something like this in your own church or faith community. I’m sure Shelley and Deb would be more than happy to connect with anyone who may have questions about where to begin. Send us an email at if you would like to learn more.

About Keith Dow

Keith serves as Manager of Organizational and Spiritual Life with Christian Horizons. He lives just South of Ottawa, Ontario, and holds his PhD in caregiving ethics from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His book Formed Together: Mystery, Narrative, and Virtue in Christian Caregiving released March 2021 through Baylor University Press. Connect with Keith on Twitter or LinkedIn.

3 Thoughts on “Touching lives in Toronto: rEcess respite at Kingsway Baptist

  1. Pingback: Parents need rEcess too — The Beautiful Side of Hectic

  2. pastor Geoffrey on April 12, 2016 at 4:48 am said:

    Dear brethren Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ our Lord, My names are Pastor Geoffrey Ombaso I am a minister for the LORD in Kenya Africa. I run an Orphanage in Kenya Africa. I am writing to you because of my needs for funds to feed not only the children but widows I also have under my care.
    Greetings and blessings to you in Jesus name. It was indeed a blessing to have gone through your website. It indeed pleases God for the work that you are doing by reaching God’s people around the globe through your wonderful website.
    We are a young independent growing congregation that is out for the truth of the gospel.
    Your website is indeed a blessing to us and would love to follow all that you use for your spiritual growth.
    In our church, we care some poor windows and 20 orphaned children. Please remember them in your prayer
    I also invite you to come and teach my congregation and also establish your ministry work here.
    May the Lord bless you as I look forward to hear from you soon? Am happy that God is doing great to us until now. We are independent and non-denominational church.
    Am happy to welcome you to my ministry as it is young and lay your foundation here and support us fully where you can
    May God bless you and your hearts to get in touch with us and may he shine upon to your hearts in Jesus Name.
    Nice to hear from you

  3. pastor Geoffrey on April 12, 2016 at 4:51 am said:

    kind help

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