Social Inclusion for All at South Christian High School

High school lunchtime can be an intimidating atmosphere, filled with uncertain social norms and expectations, depending on your grade level and social status. However, a step into the lunch hour at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) is bustling with students of diverse grade levels, abilities, and backgrounds eating, laughing, and playing games together as part of the school’s Connections Lunch Partners program.

Connections Lunch Partners

Each group of Connections Lunch Partners meets once every two weeks throughout the semester to eat lunch and play games together.

Lunch Partners, which began fifteen years ago, is just one way that South Christian seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups through their larger Connections program.  By creating opportunities for purposeful interactions, Connections’ mission is to help students see one another through God’s eyes.

South Christian High School started Connections nearly twenty years ago when they began including students with more significant needs in their general education classrooms. They realized students with disabilities were getting the support they needed academically, but the school needed to do more to connect students socially.

“We started with a small group the first few years; I would personally ask students to come alongside one of our students with a disability to offer tutoring or eat with them at lunch, which grew into genuine friendships over time. That first year, we based it on the Circle of Friends model, but tweaked pieces of it to fit high school and it grew from there,” shared Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusion Specialist at South Christian for twenty-one years.

“I appreciated the encouragement from CLC Network to keep going, even when student participation was low. God has truly blessed our efforts. The placement of my classroom is a testament to that – I moved from the back corner of a hallway to the very heart of the school,” remembers Van Keulen.

Currently, more than one-third of the South Christian High 660-person student body participates in Connections in some capacity through peer tutors, special events, Connections Council, themed chapels, or Diversability Week. As Van Keulen shares, “The only qualities we require are a willingness to reach across boundaries, a willingness to serve, an ability to meet weekly, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. If a student has the right attitude, we can coach them on the rest.”

Often, students are eager to participate because they have heard it is a fun way to get involved at school.

“Participating in Connections is a great opportunity to get to know people. It is a free environment where you can be yourself – it’s very welcoming,” shared Cody, a senior.

“I got involved because I thought it was a good way to meet new people and get connected,” commented Sam, a senior Connection Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since ninth grade.

Impacting Students’ Hearts and Lives

Connections Council Bowling Party

Members of the Connections Council meet regularly to plan events, a yearly chapel service, and to hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders.

Vocationally, Connections is preparing students for future careers in special education. Ashtyn, a senior, credits Connections for helping her realize she wanted to specialize in cognitive impairments as part of her future special education degree. Madeline, a senior who wants to become a paraprofessional after she graduates shared, “Peer tutoring helped me become more prepared [for this job] – I’ve learned patience and joy.”

Connections has created competent, compassionate leaders, genuine friends, and better students, not to mention a generation of Christ-followers who daily interact with friends of diverse abilities and backgrounds – something that’s become commonplace at this inclusive Christian school.

“Inclusion has come into every part of our students’ lives – we’ve seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they’ve learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways,” shared Van Keulen.

George Guichelaar, principal at South Christian High for more than twenty years stated,

“What’s absolutely blown us away is how [inclusion] has transformed our school. We initially focused on how it would change students that were receiving services, but we should have focused on how it would impact everyone else.”

Sarah, a senior at South Christian reflects on how she’s grown through her involvement with Connections: “When people think about programs like Connections or inclusive education, they think the helpers are only benefiting the student. But when you start working with students who have Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder or any kind of disability really, you get so much out of it at the same time. It’s not just a one way benefit.”

“Connections is a gift that keeps on giving,” stated Kevin, a senior Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since entering high school, “You don’t realize how much you’re impacted by it until you step back and realize what a great experience it’s been. I’ve learned that everyone is different and has obstacles to overcome. Helping them through that is a great experience.”

Connections Banquet

Every spring, high school students and alumni celebrate friendships at the annual Connections Banquet.

Sarah continues, “When I started doing peer tutoring, Lunch Partners and working on the Connections Banquet, I was a little bit judgmental and snobby. When I started teaching [students with disabilities] life skills and how to live independently, they taught me so much about myself. I was teaching them, and at the same time they were teaching me how to love unconditionally, and not care what your differences are…”

Like many of her peers, Lindsey, a junior, shared that she has learned pure joy from working with persons with disabilities, “It’s given me a different perspective on life. I’ve learned how to help others even when I don’t feel like it.”

“You learn to respect everyone and treat them like you’d treat your friends,” commented Kerri, a senior Council member: a statement that affirms she is learning and practicing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 firsthand.

An Encouragement for Schools

From listening to students and staff alike, it is apparent that Connections has transformed the community at South Christian High School. A transformation they adamantly encourage other Christian schools to pursue:

 “Just do it. Start somewhere! Get permission from your administration, and then begin with a small group of students. We’ve learned that lunch is the best time for high school students to connect with one another. After we began Lunch Partners, Connections grew exponentially.”

Van Keulen continued, “The Council (made up of juniors and seniors) has been critical to the success of Connections. They do the brainstorming and organizing for Connections events, hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders, and plan a yearly chapel. Even within the Council, friendships have developed that would not have happened otherwise.”

“Each spring as our senior leaders graduate, I pray for the right students to be part of the Council the next year. And every year without fail, God always raises up the amazing student leaders that we need!” shared Van Keulen, indicating a deep reliance on faith that has been crucial to the school’s twenty-year journey with inclusive education–a journey that clearly God has blessed.

Katie Barkley Image“Social Inclusion for All” by Katie Barkley was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Christian Home & School, a publication of Christian Schools International.

Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Meet CLC Network’s New Executive Director

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is eager to bring inclusion into schools and churches nationwide.

The board of CLC Network (Christian Learning Center) is pleased to announce the appointment of Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski to the position of executive director (effective September 1). Elizabeth will lead the non-profit consulting organization that currently serves more than 60 schools in seven states as well as hundreds of churches across North America.

With more than ten years of non-profit management experience and a personal passion for inclusion of persons with disabilities, Elizabeth has helped CLC Network expand nationwide since 2012, when she began as the organization’s advancement director. For the past three years, she has served as an effective fundraiser, creative communicator, and thoughtful leader. Elizabeth is eager to build upon CLC Network’s West Michigan roots and bring inclusion into communities across North America.  Elizabeth said,

“CLC Network has a history of audacity: dreaming of inclusive education for all of God’s children as the norm. That was a radical dream in 1989, and it came true for many Christian school and church communities in West Michigan. It is time to make that dream the reality across North America, and across God’s Kingdom, so that persons with disabilities can contribute their gifts to our school and church communities.”

Video: Special Announcement from CLC Network Board of Directors

Board chair, Bob Van Wieren, introduces CLC Network’s next executive director, Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski.

Bob Van Wieren, president of CLC Network’s board of directors shared, “As a board, our goal is to be the recognized leader and esteemed partner for inclusive education in Christian communities.  We are thrilled to appoint Elizabeth to this position and to entrust her to lead CLC Network as we actively pursue our vision for more complete communities.”

“I want every administrator, teacher, or leader in any Christian school or church to know that when they struggle to educate a child with a disability, they are not alone. They will know that CLC Network is here to help them, to support them, and to make the Kingdom whole alongside them,” continued Elizabeth.

“I am humbled and honored to work with an incredible team of knowledgeable Christian educators and psychologists. My job will be to enable them to share God’s love by the encouragement and support they show to all those served by CLC Network.”

Elizabeth will combine her leadership skills and talents with those of CLC Network’s new director of school services, Becky Tubergen. Becky has served at CLC Network for the past sixteen years, and will guide the organization through the expansion of its services in the years ahead. Tubergen said,

“Elizabeth has fostered strategic partnerships and provided visionary leadership that has already helped us grow.  I am thrilled about her appointment to this position and look forward to working with her to ensure our partners receive consistent, high-quality services.”

“We’ve transformed so many communities in the last 30 years,” said R. H. “Bear” Berends, executive director since 1981, “And I know that our next generation of leadership is going to multiply and expand those efforts. Our staff and our board are passionate about encouraging every Christian school in every state to serve students with disabilities and to see students with disabilities as equal, integral members of their community.”

Member of the search committee and CLC Network board secretary, Thomas Hoeksema, Ph.D. stated:

“After a prayerful and Spirit-led search, the board is thrilled to select Elizabeth as our next executive director.  In her three years as advancement director, Elizabeth has earned the trust of staff and already is helping us, with enthusiasm and optimism, to move into an exciting period of expansion.”

Elizabeth served in fundraising and visitor and membership services at the Adler Planetarium (Chicago, IL) after obtaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, IN). Originally from Grand Rapids, MI, Elizabeth has been personally affected by CLC Network’s services – her sister was a student at the Christian Learning Center in the 1980’s.  “I am proud to say that my first charitable contribution was to CLC Network,” said Elizabeth. “It has long been a meaningful organization to me and my family, and I am in awe at the way God has allowed me to serve this mission.”

About the Selection Process:

In the fall of 2014, the CLC Network board of directors appointed the executive search committee, chaired by Bob Van Wieren, board president. The committee screened and interviewed multiple candidates and recommended Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski to the board on May 12, 2015. The board unanimously approved Elizabeth as the next executive director.

“On behalf of the search committee, I want to thank everyone for their prayers and support throughout this process. We are excited about what Elizabeth will bring to this position and are eager to see how God continues to use CLC Network in communities across the nation, ” said Van Wieren.

Honor the First-Generation of CLC Network Leadership  – Save the Date: October 20, 2015

An event honoring the first-generation of CLC Network leadership (including R.H. “Bear” Berends) and celebrating CLC Network’s 35th anniversary will take place on Tuesday, October 20 at the Watermark Country Club (Grand Rapids, MI). Learn more at


Katie Barkley ImageKatie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Meet Chris and Heather-Lee Wysong

The Wysong Family

The Wysong family, from left: Conner, Heather-Lee, Chris & Pierce

Back in December, Chris and Heather-Lee Wysong challenged CLC Network donors and friends to help send CLC Network’s message of inclusion to church leaders around the country. Chris shares, “Too often, group leaders, volunteers, and pastors lack the training to effectively welcome persons with disabilities into church life. Inclusion and understanding of disabilities needs to be the norm, not the exception.”

Chris and Heather-Lee offered to match all gifts to CLC Network, up to $2,500, on Giving Tuesday (December 2) in order to send Barbara J. Newman to church conferences this spring, to speak about inclusion in churches and provide practical advice to church leaders. Donors responded by giving more than $3,800!

“I was thrilled to be able to introduce the idea of inclusion from a Christian perspective to pastors, church staff, and volunteers who may not have thought about it before,” shares Newman. “This information is so needed by many leaders, and I am grateful to CLC Network donors for helping me make inroads into so many new communities while also supporting communities already welcoming individuals with varied abilities.”

The Wysongs got to know CLC Network and Barbara J. Newman through Zeeland Christian School, where their son Pierce attends and is included socially and academically. At their church, they hoped for the same level of inclusion for Pierce, who has autism spectrum disorder.

“We attend a large church with someone designated to help those with special needs,” explains Chris. “Even with that commitment from the church, getting one-on-one help so that Pierce can participate in all the activities such as Sunday worship, summer camps, and overnighters, is almost an impossibility.” Since Pierce’s disability is more hidden, church leaders, such as volunteer group leaders, often expect him to act in a “normal” way. Instead, Pierce acts as a person with autism spectrum disorder will — from his own unique perspective. As a result, his behavior is not often managed in a helpful way.

“I wish that our church leaders, both pastors and lay people, would seek out the training that Barb offers at these conferences and through CLC Network. This is NOT just for the volunteer who is designated for special needs!” Chris reflects. “That’s why we are excited about supporting CLC Network. We don’t want to see kids drop through the cracks at church.”

While Pierce no longer attends youth group with his peers, missing out on the opportunity to build friendships and causing the other children to miss the chance to be “Jesus with skin on” for Pierce, he has found a way to contribute to the life of the church. He persistently asked to help with the younger children. Today, he volunteers to help every other week during the service. In addition, he helps out other kids who have special needs.

Chris explains, “We are sad that Pierce isn’t participating in youth worship and at camp, but there just isn’t the support for his needs. Hopefully Barb’s training for pastors and youth leaders (parents and volunteers) will open more eyes to kids in congregations who are different.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 “Inclusive” newsletter

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