Inclusion at Zeeland Christian School

Principal Bill Van Dyk

Zeeland Christian Schoool Principal Bill Van Dyk

With more than 54 students who have moderate to significant impairments in a preschool through grade 8 building of 900 students, inclusion is part of daily life at Zeeland Christian Schools (ZCS) in Zeeland, Michigan. That’s just been the reality there for more than twenty-five years, with the help of CLC Network.

Bill Van Dyk, Administrator and Principal, has been a strong partner and advocate for Inclusive Education from the beginning. CLC Network sat down with Bill to interview him further about his experience.

CLC: Tell us about what it was like to start the inclusion program at Zeeland, when no one else was doing it at this scale.

Logan and friends at ZCS

Logan participates in the annual 12-minute Jingle Jog with his classmates at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: Within two weeks of my first day on the job, a parent called wanting to enroll her son with mild autism at Zeeland Christian School. We met with Doug Bouman from CLC Network, who explained to her that we were not equipped to educate her child. She put her head on her desk and cried, and it broke my heart. I knew we had to do something.

There were conversations at the time about setting up a separate campus for CLC in Ottawa County, so we said we would try it here. At the last minute, CLC proposed to go for including kids with high needs into the school instead of a separate classroom. I knew it was a gamble; it would be an unbelievable success or I would have a short career here at ZCS. Clearly it wasn’t actually a gamble, since God has blessed it so much.

CLC: What impact did inclusion have on your school?

Bill: We were a typical school, where the popular kids were the stars, and all of a sudden the stars were the kids with disabilities.

It turned the peer structure on its head, and in a good way. How powerful to have kids teaching kids how to reflect the body of Christ! Today, the students have to think about who has special needs.

We saw it change whole families, by helping them celebrate differences. Churches became more inclusive as a result of the kids’ friendships with each other. Today we have an extremely compassionate community for all children.

CLC: What have been the benefits of inclusion?

Caleb and classmates at ZCS

Caleb smiles at a joke during “Family Group” time at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: Without the inclusion program, we would never have been able to launch a Spanish immersion program or our new Mandarin immersion program. Inclusion built an incredibly high level of trust between Zeeland Christian and the community, and popularized the notion that being different here is cool and special.

Of course, no school could have done it alone. The credibility and experience of CLC Network established our inclusion program with a strong reputation. Plus, CLC Network provides a gatekeeper for myself as principal. When a parent has very personal questions or concerns about the level of services their child may need, CLC Network provides a team of experts who can offer an objective assessment of what is best for that student.

CLC: What are the challenges of inclusion?

John and Ryan

John and Ryan have been friends since their early years at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: You can say it’s money, but it’s not. God has blessed this program. Zeeland has grown by over 100 students during the last ten years, despite the recession. From a purely business perspective, we have 54 students who brought at least 100 additional family members. Inclusion can be part of a growth model for any school.

God also brings the right people to the right places at the right times. CLC Network provides the expertise, so you can bless the whole community with inclusion, and then God will bless your school. CLC Network provides an inclusion program plan for each school, but it’s really God’s plan and it’s been fun to be along for the ride.

CLC: Was there any resistance to starting an inclusion program for students at all levels of ability?

Bill: There were questions in the beginning, but we asked everyone to let us try it, and then to tell us about any concerns. In the 24 years since, no parent has said that the inclusive program is a detriment to their kids’ education.

Many parents have said that their kids are becoming better people thanks to the inclusion program.

Teachers were worried they weren’t qualified to teach kids at all levels of ability, but now CLC Network has the resources to help understand each child, and then the sky’s the limit. We make decisions around each child, and let the program build around that. It didn’t have to be big, it was just a matter of deciding that students with special needs would be part of our community.
There is powerful scripture behind that decision; all children are created in God’s image and God doesn’t really give us a choice about whether or not to include them.

CLC: Can you share any stories about inclusion at your school?

Bill: For the first couple of years, there was story after story. One second grader would slip out of the room through the fire escape every time the teacher turned her back. Finally, the other kids got the picture and surrounded him when he tried. He wasn’t going to fight twenty other second graders, so he didn’t exit the room again.

The cool thing is, we don’t have stories about it now. Miracles are happening here all the time, it’s just life. It’s part of being a school built on relationships; we all have a role to play.

Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 Inclusive newsletter – CLC Network’s semiannual newsletter. Updated Fall 2014.

Supporting Persons with Disabilities through the Holidays

A guide for parents, grandparents, and friends to use while supporting persons with disabilities through this season of celebration and change.

Note: Because this blog post was such a helpful resource for many individuals last holiday season, we wanted to share it with you again as you walk through the next few weeks of holiday festivities.

Brothers at ChristmasWhile the holidays often bring up those Hallmark memories for many of us, for some children and adults with disabilities, holidays signal an intense time of stress and distress. Often communicated with significant behavior changes, the underlying message might be “I’m overwhelmed”, “You changed my schedule”, “Why did you put a tree in our living room”, “There are too many people stuffed into this room”, or “I am on complete sensory overload”. While all of these ideas won’t work for everyone, here are some ideas for you to try to create a positive time of celebration for each family member.

1. Who needs to know? Many times extended families get together, and yet cousins or friends may not really understand the individual with the disability. It might be helpful for parents or the person with the disability to send out a quick update to family members prior to an event.  This update could include:

    •  “How Brent has grown this year”
    • “Activities and topics Brent enjoys doing or discussing”
    • “Activities and topics to avoid with Brent”
    • “Some things that Brent may really enjoy when we gather for Christmas”
    • “Some things that might be challenging for Brent at our Christmas celebration”
    • “Some gifts Brent might enjoy receiving”
    • “Some gifts to avoid”

      Christmas cookies

      Photo credit: chadmagiera

2.   “It is better to give than to receive” – and many times we think our family member with a disability should only be the recipient of gifts, and not the giver. How can that person use an area of interest or gifting to provide something for others? Would it be the gift of a dance or song? Could that individual provide the cookies for dessert? Might that person enjoy a trip to a dollar store to pick out something for each guest or family member? What about a wall decoration or a note card for each guest with a favorite picture of an animal or area of interest? Find a way for that individual to also receive the joy of giving.

3.   Prepare in advance a way your family member can participate in the holiday traditions. Be creative. Think of ways you have made the holiday meaningful and consider ways your family member with a disability may be involved. Some ideas you could try include:

Do you collect prayer requests or notes indicating things for which each family member is thankful to incorporate into the celebration? How might that family member participate? Would it be helpful to have pictures of familiar items so that the individual can point to or pick up the prayer request and hand it to the one praying?

How about singing? Could you have a colorful streamer or small rhythm instrument available so that a person without words could participate with movement?

How about programming a portion of Luke 2 on an iPad or other device so that pushing a button will allow an individual to read a portion of the Bible? Adding figures or using the manger scene on the mantel may be a way for an individual to better understand or even help move or tell the Christmas story.

Christmas scrapbook page

Create a Christmas album! Photo Credit: Dolce_Evita

4.   Use photos. Find some pictures of the celebration from last year. If it will be similar, put together a photo album or story of that event so that the individual can remember it in pictures and written words prior to attending a similar event this year.

5.   Put together a schedule of events for your party. Whether in words and/or pictures, let the person know the planned order. Some individuals enjoy crossing off or removing the individual schedule items as they are completed.

6.   Visit the room ahead of time. Many times we redecorate or rearrange rooms to fit more people. Consider setting it up a day ahead and visiting that room without people in it. Let the individual explore the changes without the added stress of people. Perhaps leave something on a chair or in a certain place so that you can “reserve a spot” for the event when you arrive. The individual will know to find that space or item to make a more comfortable entry.

Child photographer

Photo Credit: Threelfbybike

7.   Give that individual a “job” to do. Perhaps they could be the photographer, back massager, coffee or beverage server, greeter (be the first to arrive and assimilate guests more slowly – often a better choice for some persons), or card distributer. Many times, a helping role will not only use the gifts of an individual, but it gives the person a clear sense of what to do in that environment.

8.   Designate a “safe zone”. It might be helpful to show that family member a quiet and designated space in the home or building where there would be a calming and preferred activity. It might be a mini tramp, rocking chair, a favorite book, or quiet classical music in a more isolated space where one might be able to find a refuge if the senses get overloaded.


Some other posts you might like:

Christmas Gifts that Promote Child Development

Sharing the Christmas Story with Kids with Disabilities

Sharing Jesus with a Child with Down Syndrome 


photo credit: jeffsmallwood via photopin cc


Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is a church and school consultant at CLC Network and a special education teacher at Zeeland Christian School. She is the author of numerous books. She is a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches.

The Movement Toward Inclusion in Kenya

In today’s post, our friend David Anderson, Ph.D. shares about his experience working alongside Kenyan leaders and schools to welcome persons with disabilities through his role as president of Crossing Bridges, Inc. 

Meet Eva

One of the brightest and most capable students I had in over 30 years of preparing special education teachers was a Kenyan woman whom God led to Lock Haven University (Lock Haven, PA), where I was teaching in the mid-1980s. My relationship with Eva has continued over the years since she received her degree and returned to her homeland, where she eventually opened a private school, Acorn Special Tutorials, and began serving children with various disabilities.

Eva and Clara at Logos Christian School

Eva and Clara, an administrator at Logos Christian School (Nairobi, Kenya)

It has been my privilege to travel to Kenya a dozen times since 1997 to teach at Daystar University or Great Commission School of Theology, to speak at conferences for pastors and church leaders about the opportunity (and responsibility) to minister to and with families affected by disability. I’ve also had the opportunity to teach students in the diploma program Eva created which prepares teachers to work with students who have a disability. Eva has become a widely-respected and outspoken advocate for the inclusion of children with special needs in Kenyan schools, and I am blessed to partner with her in these efforts.

Education for Students with Disabilities

Although Kenya is a signatory of the United Nation’s “Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities,” (which includes the right to an appropriate education), many social, cultural, and economic factors in Kenya impede full implementation of the Convention (the same is true in many developing nations). Schools in the private sector are more active in seeking to include children with disabilities in their programs. The government schools have been slow to open their doors, especially to students with significant disabilities.

Little Helping Hands School

Students at Little Helping Hands School (Naivasha, Kenya)

In July 2014, Eva and I visited Little Helping Hands School, a private Christian school in Naivasha, to observe several classes for young children with special needs and offer feedback and encouragement to the teachers. It was good to see the effectiveness of those who had attended seminars on special education I presented in 2013, but their need for additional training was apparent. Little Helping Hands School desires to incorporate the children with special needs more directly in its programs. At the school’s request, we will return next year for this purpose.

Visiting Nairobi

Eva also arranged for me to present seminars on inclusive education at two schools in Nairobi. One session was for the Kindergarten Headmistress Association, at the Kensington Kindergarten School. About 30 students studying early childhood education attended this seminar, along with several of their teachers. Questions asked by the students evidenced their desire to understand how to include students with disabilities into their classrooms.

The second session was for the teachers at Logos Christian School, which serves students from early childhood through 8th grade. Although this seminar was on a Friday afternoon at the close of school, roughly 50 teachers and administrators were in attendance—a sign of their interest in moving forward with including students with disabilities in their programs. This school has also requested that we provide more training next year.

I noticed a significant increase in the Kenyan schools’ interest in inclusive education since my first visit in 1997. On this most recent trip, I was able to encourage the Christian schools by sharing information about the effective inclusive programming at Grand Rapids Christian Elementary and Middle Schools. I was also able to help these present and future teachers understand how inclusive education has more to do with the heart than simply head knowledge as we explored what “normalcy” and “disability” mean, and some theological principles that are the basis for inclusion (e.g., interdependence, community, hospitality, etc.).

I’m looking forward to returning next year to continue training teachers and fostering an inclusive environment in Kenyan schools.

How can you support international inclusion efforts?

Prayer. Pray for Eva and Clara as they move forward to implement inclusive education in Kenya.

Connect with Crossing Bridges. Visit our website to learn more about ways you can get involved – directly and indirectly – with our inclusion efforts.


David AndersonDavid W Anderson, Ed.D., is Emeritus Professor of Special Education, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, where he served for 15 years as Director of Graduate Programs in Special Education. He is also President of Crossing Bridges, Inc., an international ministry focusing on issues of disability and special education, which seeks to promote inclusive practices in churches and schools.

A Ten Year Journey: Antonio Finds a School Home

For the last ten years, Jennifer Contreras has been searching for a Christian school in which to enroll her son, Antonio. Over and over, she was told that someone else would be better able to educate Antonio due to his developmental delays. But, as Alma Heights Christian School’s head of school David Gross explains, “Elsewhere doesn’t exist.”

Jennifer Contreras and her son, Antonio

Jennifer Contreras and her son, Antonio

Jennifer recalls contacting twenty-three Christian schools within a 45-minute drive of her home in Pacifica, California. Most often, the school leaders she spoke with couldn’t envision how to serve Antonio and encouraged her to look elsewhere. “I was shocked, I cried in the car after those meetings,” she recalls.

“How could every child not deserve a Christian education?”

That question came to influence other areas of Jennifer’s life.

“I just couldn’t believe that no one else felt the same sense of injustice. I wanted Christianity to be a part of Antonio’s daily life, for him to learn about God from teachers who cared about his faith.”

Discovering an Inclusive Education Model for Christian Schools 

In 2012, as part of her research for a doctoral dissertation on Christian education and students with learning disabilities, Jennifer learned about CLC Network and scheduled a visit. After spending some time at CLC Network partner schools, Jennifer recalls thinking,

“This is what it should be. I’ve seen it, it’s been done. It gave me a picture of what I desired for my son, and the confidence that this methodology could be applied everywhere.”

At the time, Antonio was enrolled in the local public school for his first year of high school. “Antonio started categorizing himself as a ‛special ed kid’ and identified himself apart from ‛general ed kids.’ I could see that the segregated environment wasn’t good for his self esteem and with his growth in learning how to integrate with the general community,” she remembers.

Antonio also began attending Coastside Church, which meets on the campus of Alma Heights Christian School (AHC) (Pacifica, CA), and making friends through the youth group. Jennifer was struggling with trying to find a new church home after seeing Antonio excluded elsewhere, but eventually she attended an event with Antonio. There she met David Gross, head of school at Alma Heights Christian.

Making a Place for Antonio at AHC

David was convinced that Antonio belonged at his school.

“I did not have a strategy in place for educating Antonio, but I was convinced that this was the right place for him.” he says.

Antonio Contreras with his friends

Antonio Contreras with his friends

“We had been making progress toward a more mature and inclusive educational philosophy for several years, and Jennifer told me that she could provide the expertise through CLC Network.”

Jennifer and David quickly came up with a plan, and Jennifer committed to fund the plan herself “with dollars I didn’t have!” she exclaims. “But the train had left the station. We were just trying to catch up.” Jennifer contacted her employer and learned they would match her gift to AHC, up to $50,000. The plan calls for launching the first year as a pilot, and adding resource staff as more students enroll.

Making Strides at Alma Heights

Antonio started attending AHC this fall as a 10th grade student. In the first weeks of school, he has already made strides. Antonio shares, “I like AHC because I can go to school with my friends from church.” But, the positive effects extend beyond that: Antonio’s verbal and math skills have significantly improved.

“We think that because he is around typically abled kids, he is able to model his speech after them,” shares Jennifer.


Teacher consultants Greg Yoder and Barbara Newman provided initial training and support to AHC; CLC Network will continue to assist the school as they include Antonio and other learners.

No one objected to the idea of enrolling Antonio, but there were many questions around how it would work. CLC Network consultants Greg Yoder and Barbara Newman made an early visit to the school in August to meet and train teachers, and to witness the first day of school. Greg reflected,

“It was a thrill for Barb and me to share this day with Jennifer that has literally been ten years in the making. God is truly at work at AHC and his fingerprints are all over.”

In addition to partnering with CLC Network, AHC hired Antonio’s former tutor to provide part-time support.

“Word was barely out that we were working with CLC Network and doing this, and we had another student (in addition to Antonio) enroll yesterday,” David shares.

“I’m guessing I’ll get in over my head, but CLC Network is here to help prevent that. I am excited about becoming a community that’s not defined by narrow outcomes for kids, that we are growing their souls instead.”

Thanks to the support of many donors, CLC Network is thrilled to bring our knowledge to California. David shares, “I look forward to confidently saying to other administrators, ‘See! It’s better this way.’ Then I hope that we can be a toehold for inclusive Christian education in the entire Bay area.”


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 Inclusive newsletter.  Learn more about creating inclusive communities on the CLC Network website


Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the director of advancement at CLC Network.

Growing Up with Ben – Life with a Sibling with a Disability

What are the unique needs and experiences of growing up with a sibling with a disability? Our friend Aubrey shares insight into growing up with Ben, her older brother with significant developmental disabilities in today’s post.

Aubrey and Ben

Aubrey and her brother, Ben

I was silent about both the struggles my family endured as well as the laughter my brother Ben brought to our lives until my first year of college. Having an older brother with severe developmental disabilities meant my life looked very different from my fellow classmates, classmates who didn’t understand disabilities first hand. I vividly remember an event where a change in routine caused a flip to switch in my brother that he couldn’t control. He was attending my sporting event with our parents, and at 6’3” and well over 200 lbs., his outburst was dangerous, intimidating, and I’m sure confusing for the many bystanders.

Boerema family photo

The Boerema family

When faced with questions from friends, I remember feeling so torn. I didn’t know how to be honest about the frustrating and sometimes scary reality of life with Ben while at the same time communicating that he was, still is, and always would be, the older brother I loved dearly and couldn’t imagine life without. Explaining the frequent ugliness of his diagnosis seemed like betrayal to a brother who I knew would feel great remorse for his uncontrollable actions a couple of hours later.

It wasn’t until I realized that I could be a voice for Ben that I opened up. Now, after a few years of discussions and reflection, I would like to offer some insight on what was helpful growing up, what would have been helpful, and what I need now, as an adult.

What Was Helpful

  • For the last 25+ years, a friend of our family has prayed for Ben every Tuesday (and still does). He called my parents often for updates, and would always call or visit on Ben’s birthday as well as send a card, usually with a gift. Knowing that someone besides a family member truly cared for Ben was and is encouraging and uplifting.
  • When I was nearing the end of high school, my church got a new youth pastor, whose wife had a sister very similar to Ben. Being able to talk about some of the hard things as well as the joys made processing easier and brought a connection different than others I had while growing up.

What Would Have Been Helpful

  • A Support group.

    A support group with peers who had similar experiences and whose feelings I could relate to would have been incredibly therapeutic. I think having a safe place to talk about my disappointments and fears that otherwise stayed secret would have decreased my feelings of being alone and different. It would have also been wonderful to share the joyful moments, that often felt small compared to some of the negatives, with others who understood.

  • Professional counseling.

    Along with a support group, it might have been helpful to go to professional counseling. I didn’t receive any until last year, and now that I’ve been able to talk through it with a counselor, I wish I could have attended earlier in life.

  • Openness.

    Openness within my family would have allowed me to process the highs and lows as well. I know my parents wanted to shield me from the difficulties as much as they could, and although I am grateful for their wisdom, I am even more grateful for the times we are now able to talk openly about the hard times. A family goes through many highs and lows together. As painful as it is to talk about the “hard stuff”, such as the wishes and dreams that are desired for the sibling yet won’t be reached, it’s important to uncover those hurts. It’s also vital to talk about the delight the sibling brings to the family, as it can be easy to overlook the gift of being blessed with a sibling with disabilities. I’ve learned more about life from Ben than from any other person.

  • Genuine Interest. 

    Something I have always wanted is the ability to know if those who asked questions were genuinely interested in knowing who Ben was as an individual. I would have felt much more comfortable talking to people about the joys and hardships if I knew they were willing to learn before judging, and love before dismissing.

All of the above are still needed and greatly appreciated. With the blessing and challenge of a sibling with disabilities comes a need for openness, honesty, and a network of support. After realizing how I can be an even greater part of Ben’s life, I have a different perspective on who I am as Ben’s little sister than I did growing up. I still have torn feelings when asked hard questions, but I understand now that I, along with my family members and those close to Ben, can be the voice he doesn’t have.

Join a Sibling Support Group

If you know of a child in the Grand Rapids (MI) area that would benefit from a sibling support group, we invite you to explore the monthly sessions offered at Family Tree Therapies (Grand Rapids, MI). You can learn more on their website.

Aubrey and BenAubrey Boerema is a fourth-year student at Calvin College, studying Therapeutic Recreation and Business Management. She loves spending time with family on her parents’ farm, and enjoys participating in equine therapy for children at Rainbow Ranch, Inc. in New Era, MI.