Melissa Shutwell: Building a Spiritual Home for People with Disabilities

By Candice Wagener | Photographed by Hillary Schave on location at Hilton Madison Monona Terrace

Melissa Shutwell presents herself in a calm, affable manner, humbly listing off her responsibilities, always giving credit to her community. According to friend and colleague Ashley McNary, however, “there is literally no limit to what this woman can do.”

A mom to three, including a 9-year-old daughter with ADHD, sensory processing disorder and anxiety and a 3-year-old son with Down syndrome, Shutwell’s personal experiences have propelled her into various roles, all encompassed within the same mission of advocacy.

Last March, Shutwell was called to develop a new ministry for Heartland Church in Sun Prairie, focused on making the church more welcoming to all abilities. In Dane County, 11% of the population has a disability—a figure not reflected in the church system. Families with differently-abled children try an average of six churches before finding one that fits. Many give up well before that.

Shutwell’s ministry, Wonderfully Made, debuted in December. She and her team ensured the building is “accessible to all people from floor to ceiling,” with a new ADA-approved playground, a sensory room plus sensory boxes in every kids’ room, training for staff, and accessible parking and seating arrangements.

Her goal is to serve 75 individuals with disabilities and their families by the end of 2020.

Shutwell also serves as board president for the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network, which educates and dispels myths about the syndrome. And she’s executive director of A Night to Remember, McNary’s brainchild, which provides a prom-like experience for individuals with disabilities. Every detail—dress fittings/alterations, tux rentals, flowers, jewelry, limo ride—is handled, and each participant is matched with a personal  guide for the event.

“It is one of the greatest nights of the year, maybe the greatest,” she says. Shutwell continues to increase attendance each year and A Night to Remember recently established its 501(c)3 status.

“It’s not just what she does, it’s how she does it with such joy and excellence and ease,” says McNary, adding that Shutwell essentially runs her household solo during the week as her husband works in Chicago.

“Sometimes I’m torn between just being a mom and all the stuff that I do, but I think it’s important [the kids] see that their mom is doing things for other people,” Shutwell says. “It’s not just about us; we’re here to serve others.”

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