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.

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.”

Six Tips for an Inclusive Christmas Program

Six Tips for an inclusive Christmas programIt’s Christmas time, and that means many of you are getting ready to plan your church Christmas program. So, how can you create an inclusive Christmas program for your students? How can you ensure that each child will fully participate in the joy of celebrating Jesus’ birth? I would like to share with you six helpful hints as you begin to plan your program.

1. Remember the Purpose

It’s easy to become so engrossed with the program, that we forget why we are doing it. Individuals with a disability may find it helpful to reread the Christmas story, to learn about it in a way that matters to them, and connect the story with what is happening during the actual Christmas program. Remembering the purpose can be helpful for the people planning it as well!

2. Offer a Preview

Christmas playBy offering a preview of what will happen in the program, individuals with a disability can know what to anticipate, which will allow them to feel more prepared.

You can offer a preview using pictures, words, or both. You can do this with a photo album, a PowerPoint, or story? It is helpful, however, to only put a sequence of events on your preview, and to keep it broad. That way, if something goes wrong, the child is less likely to know and become upset. This leads us to our next helpful hint…

3. Have a Plan B

We know that in any event, no matter how much we have planned, there is bound to be something that will not go as planned. So, it’s important for you to have a plan B. Discuss the different scenarios that might occur while the individual is participating, and, together, come up with a solution.

4. Think of their Physical and Emotional Needs

Be sure to think through the individual's sensory needs, such as spotlights, sound volume, and access to the front of the sanctuary.

Be sure to think through the individual’s sensory needs, such as spotlights, sound volume, and access to the front of the sanctuary.

Make sure you think through and anticipate any of the physical or emotional needs of the individual. A child may find it helpful to have cue cards held up during the program, or an aid/buddy to help guide him throughout the event. Sensory issues should be thought through as well, such as spotlights, sound volume, and access to the front of the sanctuary.

5. Structure, Structure, Structure

Creating structure for your friendwill ease a lot of anxiety for both of you. For example, write the child’s name on a piece of tape so he knows where to sit or stand. Practice with and without other people in the room. Record the songs or dialogue so that it can be practiced at home ahead of time. Lastly, have a chair available with the child’s name taped onto it when she doesn’t need to stand.

6. Dealing with Anxiety

If a child is truly anxious, provide a part that can be video taped ahead of time and then played in the program later. Also, include some friends in the taping so as to not single out the child or adult with a disability.

Additional resources:

Autism and Your Church by Barbara J. Newman

Supporting Persons with Disabilities through the Holidays


photo credit: hubertk via photopin cc

photo credit: hubertk via photopin cc

JJacki Sikkema photoacki Sikkema has a background in Special Education and currently serves in the Church Services Division at CLC Network.

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.

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.