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. 

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:

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 or at

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.

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.

Christ Church: A Place for All

Christ Church road sign

Photo credit: Christ Church

When Mae Froysland and her fellow community members started Christ Church (Grand Rapids, MI) nearly 50 years ago, they knew it was important for this place of worship to hold true to its name and be a place where all people experienced the love of Jesus Christ. They intentionally created a culture of caring for people, which involved taking the time to talk and listen to fellow members.

Creating Community

Over the years, this manifested into activities designed to create conversation and community. During occasional services, attendees would wear nametags or be broken up into groups based on a random number assignment.  Today it involves a very busy coffee hour in the church lobby following the service, among other activities.  What began as authentic, deliberate actions to make sure everyone felt welcome has evolved into a culture of inclusion that permeates the congregation and radiates to first-time and long-time attendees alike.

Meet the Harley Family

Jason and Alicia Harley and their family were profoundly impacted by these intentional actions. When Jason first attended Alicia’s home church, he could sense it was a place where people with disabilities would be treated with respect and welcome. Although he initially did not attend Christ Church often, Jason would occasionally bring patients from the local mental health facility where he worked because he knew the church community would not ostracize them.

Harley family photo

The Harley Family

Over the course of five years, the Harley’s had four children, including their oldest son, Isaac, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Though the Harley’s had not attended Christ Church regularly, members of the church reached out to them to help them care for their young children, particularly Isaac.

Because of the outpouring of love and care for the Harley’s, their family became more involved with Christ Church. Not only did Jason join Alicia in becoming a member, but all four of their children were baptized together.

Including Isaac

In her role as the Childhood Director, Mae spent time getting to know Isaac and his family so that she could best surround him with the right supports during his time at church. Equipped with this knowledge, she recruited volunteers to work with him one-on-one in the classroom alongside his peers, which made a significant difference with how comfortable he felt with the group. These volunteers, many of whom continue to work with Isaac today, have a background in special education and understand how he works. They know when to hold him during worship and how to help him during a craft project.

Mae also advocated for additional training and support for their team. Practical ideas provided by an observation from CLC Network church consultant Jacki Sikkema gave Mae and her staff additional ideas to try. Jacki’s suggestions, such as identifying Isaac’s chair with his name, integrating Isaac’s love for flannel by using flannel graph figures in lessons, and providing him with choices have only enhanced the excellent work of Mae and the Christ Church staff.

Gradually, Isaac has made incredible progress:

“Church almost became an extension of therapy”, said Jason.

One of the most significant signs of this is his increased ability to be intimate with people he has recently met, which has helped in relating to other kids. He is more willing to give hugs, be gentle with new friends, and accept help from others.

Because of the expressions of love and care shown by the members of Christ Church, the Harley family has not only grown closer to their church, but also to Christ.  And they’re not the only ones who have been shaped by this relationship. It is evident that Isaac’s connection with his leaders and classmates is one that bears the initial fruits of mutuality, a relationship that will continue to grow as he and his peers and leaders live and work together.

Becoming Fully Inclusive

However, it doesn’t stop with Isaac. Mae continues to pursue additional inclusion training for their church members so that Christ Church is even more equipped to welcome and receive the gifts of everyone in their church family. She is excited to walk through the G.L.U.E. Training with a small team this year, so that both children and adults with atypical needs like Isaac are intentionally supported and included at Christ Church.

We praise God for the efforts of Mae and Christ Church to make the Kingdom more complete!

Additional Resources:

G.L.U.E. Training Manual and DVD (You can even apply to receive this training for FREE! Learn more at this link.)

Include ALL Kids in VBS with these 9 Tips

Inclusion in Action at LaGrave Avenue Church

An Inclusive Congregation – Changes Our Church Made to Welcome All


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

10 Children’s Books that Teach Inclusion

Summer is a fantastic time for exploring new books that foster meaningful conversations between children and adults. Help children understand and welcome peers with and without disabilities by reading one or many of these books this summer. Whether you’re a parent, children’s ministry leader, or summer school teacher, you’ll enjoy sharing these stories with the kids in your lives. Be sure to add your own favorites in the “Comments” section below!

Note: All book descriptions are from Amazon unless otherwise noted.

  1. All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome by Kathy Hoopman

    All Cats have Asperger SyndromeAll Cats Have Asperger Syndrome takes a playful look at Asperger Syndrome (AS), drawing inspiration from the feline world in a way that will strike a chord with all those who are familiar with AS.Delightful color photographs of cats bring to life familiar characteristics such as sensitive hearing, scampering at the first sign of being stroked and particular eating habits. Touching, humorous and insightful, this book evokes the difficulties and joys of raising a child who is different and leaves the reader with a sense of the dignity, individuality and potential of people with AS.This engaging book is an ideal, gentle introduction to the world of AS.

  2. All Kinds of Friends, Even Green!All Kinds of Friends, Even Green! by Ellen Senisi

    More than just a story about friendship, ALL KINDS OF FRIENDS, EVEN GREEN! looks at difference—such as being in a wheelchair or missing toes—in a unique way. With this beautifully photographed and engaging story, children discover that living with disability and facing its challenges can be seen as interesting, even positive. With an Afterword about disabilities, Moses, and iguanas, the story provides material for discussing inclusion at school and home.

  3. Be Good to Eddie LeeBe Good to Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming

    This book is an excellent tool to begin discussions with children in grades Preschool-6 about forming friendships with a child with a disability. Before you begin reading this book, tell the children gathered, “When we are done, I’m going to ask you which person in the story knew how to be the best friend.” You will have a great discussion and open the doors to talk about the way in which you want children to treat one another in your setting. (Available from CLC Network.)

  4. Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive CommunityBody Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community by Barbara J. Newman

    This book features 6 weeks of 7 devotionals. Each devotion highlights a passage of Scripture as well as a story from an inclusive Christian school or church. The devotion book also offers opportunities for those reading to submit a story from their own community to CLC Network for possible publication on the website or in a future book. We are delighted to offer this truly unique and inspirational resource written by Barbara J. Newman with theological support from Dr. Andrew J. Bandstra. (Available from CLC Network.)

  5. Don't Call Me SpecialDon’t Call Me Special by Pat Thomas

    This delightful picture book explores questions and concerns about physical disabilities in a simple and reassuring way. Younger children can find out about individual disabilities, special equipment that is available to help the disabled, and how people of all ages can deal with disabilities and live happy and full lives. Titles in this series for younger children explore emotional issues that boys and girls encounter as part of the growing-up process. Books are focused to appeal to kids of preschool through early school age.

  6. Little RainmanLittle Rainman: Autism – Through the Eyes of a Child by Karen Simmons

    Recommended by world-renowned author and speaker Dr. Temple Grandin, this children’s book paints a picture of what life is like for children with autism. Unique illustrations accompany a child’s voice as he explains the different ways he thinks, sees, hears, and feels. This book is great for reading to children with or without autism to encourage acceptance and understanding. Written by Karen Simmons-Sicoli, mother of a son with autism, this was one of the first books of its kind and it continues to be a classic in the autism community.

  7. The Little CupcakesThe Little Cupcakes by Anthony King

    The Little Cupcakes is a beautiful and engaging learning journey, encouraging children and parents to talk with each other about tolerance and diversity in a caring, sharing, sensitive way.

  8. We'll Paint the Octopus RedWe’ll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen

    As six-year-old Emma anticipates the birth of her new baby brother or sister, she vividly imagines all of the things they can do together. Emma feels ready to be a big sister! Then when the baby is born, her dad tells her that it’s a boy and he has something called Down syndrome. Finally she asks, “If Isaac has this Down thing, then what can’t he do?”. Her dad thinks about it, then tells her that as long as they are patient with him, and help him when he needs it, there probably isn’t anything Isaac can’t do. In this touching story, Emma helps her father as much as he helps her to realise that Isaac is the baby they dreamed of. The book concludes with a set of commonly asked questions about Down syndrome with answers for children and how it might affect their sibling and family. For ages 3-7.

  9. You Are SpecialYou Are Special by Max Lucado

    In this heartwarming children’s tale from the best-selling pen of author Max Lucado, Eli the woodcarver helps Punchinello understand how special he is–no matter what other Wemmicks may think. It’s a vital message for children everywhere: that regardless of how the world evaluates them, God cherishes each of them, just as they are.

  10. You've Got a FriendYou’ve Got a Friend by Joni Eareckson Tada

    Benjamin, sad and lonely in his wheelchair, receives help from two angels when they create the opportunity for him to fix his old friend Tony’s flat bicycle tire.

How about you…what books about disability and inclusion do you recommend?

Note: If you purchase these books through Amazon, CLC Network (Christian Learning Center) will receive a percentage of your purchase through AmazonSmile.