All God’s Children: Building Community through Disability Awareness

Understanding the inherent God-given purpose and gifts of each of his children is crucial to living in interdependent community.  Julia Murray, an American Heritage Girls troop leader, shares an experience that enriched both her and her troop’s understanding of community in today’s post.    

Sometimes, God works in dramatic ways to guide our footsteps. But frankly, I smile much bigger when He does it in His subtle “betcha didn’t see that coming” kind of style.

American Heritage Girls doing the "puzzle piece" activityI lead a troop of 30 American Heritage Girls, ages 6-12. This faith-based scouting organization has challenged me AND the girls in my troop to venture out from our comfort zones, so when I saw a badge entitled “All God’s Children” about disabilities awareness, I prayed that the right person would come along who could make this personal to my girls.

God answers prayers in His own time and did so when I learned about Vangie Rodenbeck of PURE Ministries in Gainesville, GA. I was charmed by her humor about her life as a mom to young man with autism spectrum disorder, as well as her role as a ministry leader. But I knew immediately Vangie was the one to teach my troop when she told me simply, “If we can teach your kids to be friends with someone like my son, we can change the world!”

Vangie Rodenbeck

Vangie Rodenbeck shares how our strengths and weaknesses complement one another.

She held the girls and parents spellbound with the concepts clearly explained for all ages, beginning with a cookbook. The girls completely understood how God has a recipe for each and every one of us, based on the job He has for us to do on this earth. The recipes are all different and only scratch the surface.

“Don’t ignore my child’s diagnosis…I worked HARD to get it!” she explains.

“But honor [the diagnosis] and accept it for what it is. And remember that diagnosis doesn’t tell you everything about Noah. It doesn’t tell you that he loves rock & roll, or that he can ride a bike. It doesn’t tell you what he’s like at all.”

This concept was driven home by the use of the two green and pink puzzle pieces that she held in each hand from the CLC Network “Inclusion Awareness Kit”. The girls were given their own large puzzle pieces and took a few minutes writing all the things they do well on the green side, and the things they don’t do so well on the pink side. The group discussion that followed was a thing of beauty.

Student working on puzzle piece

Each student wrote their areas of strength and struggle on the green and pink puzzle pieces.

We learned that Rachel is good at reading, but not so good at math. Megan can draw really well, but isn’t good at creative writing. Emma can write great stories, but stick figures are her illustrations.

If the lightbulbs that went off in their heads were real, we could have lit up the entire building.

Suddenly, they realized that one girl’s “greens” often complemented another girl’s “pinks.” And that’s why they got along so well and accomplished so much in meetings…they were tapping into their individual God-given strengths, which were all different. How boring would it be if we were ALL “green” at everything? It’s God’s design – His recipe – that we all have our pinks and greens.

It was a perfect lead-in to scripture in Romans that tells us God created us all as parts of a body; no one person can be the entire body. We’re often more alike than we are different, and it’s our “alikeness” that brings us together.

Julia Murray is the Pastoral Ministry Assistant at Midway United Methodist Church in Alpharetta, GA. American Heritage Girls, based in Ohio and  founded in 1995, has as its mission to “build women of integrity through service to God, family, community and country.”

Making Lent and Easter Meaningful for Persons with Disabilities

Graphic: Making Lent and Easter Meaningful for Persons with DisabilitiesPart One: Get to Know the Individual

Easter and the Lenten season are a time to reflect on the sacrificial and redeeming love of Christ. For some individuals, however, this season may be confusing, unimportant, and even scary. How can you help make this a meaningful time of reflection and celebration for a person with a disability?

Accessible Gospel, Inclusive WorshipThe most important place to begin is by getting to know the individual’s strengths and areas of struggle. Each person — regardless of their level of ability or disability — is handcrafted by God with gifts and areas of interest, as well as areas where they need the assistance and grace of others. As you consider this individual, it’s important to ask: what CAN this individual do? When you focus on what the person enjoys, it’s easier to think of the tools, approach and opportunities to include in that environment where you can help the person grow closer to Jesus.

The following information is adapted from “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship”, a book I recently wrote to help parents, friends, teachers, volunteers, and pastors create an environment where they can introduce the gospel and foster faith formation in persons with disabilities. I invite you to read this book to find practical ideas, stories, and encouragement that will help you make this important introduction.

 

Important questions to consider about your friend:

How does the individual take information in?

It’s important to know how people best process information so that we can align our strategies with that person’s best way of taking information in. Some people do function well with words. Others prefer pictures or objects. Others may need sign language, Braille or large print.

How does the individual get information out?

Do they use photos? Do they need special equipment? Find out how this person communicates and what ways you can enter that conversation together.

What movements can the person do?

Can he walk or run? Can she operate her own wheelchair? Can he sit in a chair on his own? Can she wave a praise streamer? While your friend may have many movements that work well, for those individuals who have limited mobility, find out what tools, equipment, and safety issues impact the individual’s ability to interact with the environment.

Does he or she have any sensory sensitivities?

Does he or she have an over or under sensitivity to sound or sight? How about balance or smell? Some individuals can have several differences. She might be over-sensitive in one area and under-sensitive in another.  Also think about what tools are helpful for regulating that particular sensation. Is a sound blocker, tinted glasses, or a mini trampoline helpful?  “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship” has a helpful chart that outlines what sensitivities in these areas and more might look like, as well as an explanation of sensory sensitivities that I invite you to check out.

We encourage you to write down your answers to these questions, and even to discuss and brainstorm with other adults in this persons’ life. As you get to know this individual, think about how you could use this information to foster an environment where they can grow closer to Christ.

 

Part Two: Accessible Gospel

Now that we have a good understanding of our friend, it’s time to apply that knowledge to creating an environment where we can share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Young children in a classroomWhile the content is important, how we present that content may require some creativity and prayerful consideration. We may first need to learn to speak that individual’s language, to find out that person’s story and what that individual really enjoys. Perhaps we need to find that person’s “expert” or “guide” so we can better form a safe and productive relation­ship. Have we considered creating a team that may include intercessors, or perhaps purchasing some items that would be well received by that person? Do we know what phrases to avoid with this individual? Particularly around Easter, it’s important to make sure the invitation focuses on the compelling love of Jesus Christ, rather than items that may appear scary to your friend (like nails, death, and blood). Though Jesus’ death is crucial to our salvation, it’s important not to scare your friend into following Jesus.

You Try It

Begin with your answers to the questions in Part I above. Focus on the gifts, strengths, and interests of that person. As you think about their strengths and interests, can you think of a way to use this to make an introduction of the good news of Jesus Christ?

During Lent, would it be meaningful for your friend to have a daily reminder of Jesus’ love? Perhaps this could be a chair in their house draped in a purple cloth? Or an illustration of Jesus welcoming the children? How about a picture they’ve colored? Consider how your friend receives information, and combine that with something that meaningfully communicates Christ’s love to them.

Jesus birthday cake

One variation of the cake from the Happy Home Fairy: http://ow.ly/rw51a

Their gifts and joys will often be the activity to house the message. If your adult friend enjoys baking, then you might make Easter rolls. When you break them open, they are hollow inside. You could find a recipe for a resurrection cake where each layer and part represents what Jesus has done for us. Turn the baking environment into an introduction to Jesus.

Perhaps you are a parent. If your child is talented at playing and running, you might create a fitness course where each station tells a part of the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are a grandparent and your grandchild enjoys playing board games with you. If that’s a strength of your grandchild, how could you adapt his or her favorite board game to represent the parts of the gospel message?

Next, focus on the ways your friend takes information in. Do you have notes from Part I about the importance of using pictures or keeping it short due to attention span? Can you use books with words or would you want to use music? How a person takes information in will help you choose the content for the activity. For example, if you are doing the Easter cake baking, should you have a word recipe or picture recipe to describe the gospel layers of the cake?

As you look at ways your friend gets information out, this will be the way you can check for understanding. For example, if your friend can pull you to a particular place and you are doing the fitness course, you could ask your friend to take you to the place that shows us Jesus is alive. If your friend can point to a picture or object and you are doing a board game, have that person point to someone that Jesus loves in order to move forward 4 spaces.

As you plan your environment and activity, make sure to factor in movements, sensory sensitivities, safety issues, and equipment needed.

As the activity begins to form in your mind, consider constructing the content so that you can repeat it and review it.  Creating something lasting allows you to come back to it and learn from it many times over.

Person prayingAt this point, if nothing comes to mind, ask another individual to brainstorm with you. Remember to cover this process with prayer. God hand-crafted this individual and knows this person from before birth. Ask Him to highlight a path. Remember, you create the environment for the introduction to Jesus and His love for this individual, and watch God do the rest!

Remember, we are not the one who saves, that’s God’s part. But we are called to set up an environment where we can arrange an introduction. It is our hope at CLC Network that these tips and ideas have helped you to think of some ways to help a friend with a disability in your life reflect on and celebrate Christ’s love this Easter and Lenten season.

Additional resources:Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship

All of the material above was adapted from  “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship”.  You will find many more stories and ideas in the book available from CLC Network for only $10!

The Easter BookIf you are still looking for some printed resources and more ideas, I had the chance to write a book called The Easter Book for Friendship Ministries. While this book is part of a larger set of materials, it contains many activities you may be able to use, especially with adults. You can find The Easter Book at www.clcnetwork.org or at http://www.friendship.org.

cross photo credit: Christian Cross 11 via photopin (license). Adaptions by CLC Network.

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 and a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches.

Inclusive Education at Ada Christian School

Third grade students at Ada Christian School

Third grade learners and friends at Ada Christian School.

When asked how inclusive education fits into Ada Christian’s vision, Principal Melissa Brower is stumped. “Without it, we wouldn’t be whole,” she says. “Inclusive education fits in just like everything else we do.”

Ada Christian School (Ada, Michigan) enrolls approximately 560 students in preschool through 8th grade, and has worked with CLC Network since 1987. Their mission, equipping students for service in God’s world, breaks down into four focus areas: mind, body, soul, and community. Mrs. Brower explains,

“As a school of course we have high standards for our students, but high standards may look different for different learners. Our job is to meet each student where they are and help them grow.”

Melissa Brower with students

Third graders share what they’re learning with principal Melissa Brower.

Part of that growth is making sure parent-teacher conferences and classroom dynamics reflect all areas of personal growth. “Our society can be so focused on judging people by their output, their ability to produce something. We want our students to know that everyone plays a part in God’s Kingdom, no matter their abilities.”

Each week, homeroom classes review how they are treating each other in community. In middle school, small groups led by teachers, youth pastors, and adult volunteers help students reflect on their faith. Commitments like this help create a safe environment of care, which is especially valued by parents of kids with disabilities.

Parents like Jim Horman have an especially strong relationship with the school. His son, Cole, transferred to Ada Christian last year after struggling in a public school. “It’s been a surprise how much Christianity is infused into everything at this school,” he shares.

“They are Christian in their responses to Cole, not just in the title of the school. They help other students see Cole beyond his disability, and talk openly about his needs. As his parents, we feel like an extension of the team surrounding him with compassion and understanding.”

Ada 03

Sixth graders demonstrating that everyone is part of God’s family with a “family portrait”.

“I couldn’t express strongly enough how positive our experience at Ada Christian has been,” reflects Randy Russo, whose daughter Isabelle is enrolled in 7th grade. “As a parent of a child with a disability, that positive experience becomes emotional for us. The teachers and students just accept her so easily, she blends into the school in all capacities without hesitation. The feeling of acceptance in this school is incredibly unique.”

Ada Christian continues to refine its approach. This year, Jim Hapner became the first full-time Inclusion Specialist. “I’ve been really impressed by how the school’s vision guides everyone here, helping us work together,” he reflects. “I look forward to working closely with students who may struggle to meet social and academic challenges.”

Linda Slotsema has served as an instructional aide at Ada Christian for more than thirteen years. Over that time, she’s observed many changes in how teachers react to students with special needs.

“Our teachers are proactive about getting help for their students — not for the purposes of getting them out of the classroom, but to make sure they are successful inside of the general education classroom.”

Mrs. Brower shares some of the demonstrations of success she sees in her day. “It’s the little things that are really such big things. Like during a band concert, seeing a student reach out and calm the person next to her who may be panicking over the change in routine. Or watching a student hurry out, but when his friend reaches out to say goodbye he stops, and takes time to recognize that person and ask about his day. That’s the picture of Christlike behavior we are striving for.”

Elizabeth Dombrowski photo

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network. 

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