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.

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.

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

Key Ministry…When kids and families are impacted by less visible disabilities

We are always looking for partners who inspire us and push us to think outside of our own experience, and it’s a pleasure to introduce Key Ministry as one of those partners. We encourage you to check them out!

Key Ministry logoWhen our team launched Key Ministry in 2002, we did so to help churches serve families of children with  “hidden disabilities”… significant emotional, behavioral, developmental or neurologic conditions that posed major barriers to families connecting with a local church.

Flash forward ten years…the disability ministry movement has grown by leaps and bounds in its’ capacity to help kids with “special needs” to attend church. Churches made great progress including families of kids with intellectual disabilities, genetic syndromes and cognitive impairment. We have successful strategies for inclusion (buddy ministries, self-contained classrooms) and outreach (respite, “proms” or other special event ministries). But kids with “special needs” represent only a small portion of the disabled population struggling to connect through the local church. Most kids and families impacted by disability would NEVER think of themselves as candidates to be served by a “special needs” ministry…they’re reluctant to self-identify and will flee ministry interventions that draw attention to their differences because they desperately want to fit in with everyone else.

Our team pondered this… What need has God uniquely called and positioned us to meet that other ministry organizations haven’t been able to address? We concluded…

Key Ministry provides knowledge, innovation and experience to the worldwide church as it ministers to and with families of children impacted by mental illness, trauma and developmental disabilities.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in North America. On any given weekend, the number of Americans attending a worship service is roughly equal to those with a serious mental health condition. Church leaders struggle to develop strategies for ministry to people who are disabled in some environments, but not others. We’re called to come alongside ministry leaders and like-minded organizations seeking to break down the barriers that keep kids and families impacted by mental illness, trauma and developmental disabilities from fully participating in the life of the local church.

Our team is currently pursuing four initiatives to advance disability inclusion in the church…

Large door imageFront Door Church logo Online ministry: We’ve developed an online platform to deliver free, interactive ministry training to any church with access to high-speed internet service. We host Inclusion Fusion, a free, worldwide disability ministry Web Summit scheduled for November 12th-13th. We’re experimenting with online church as a strategy to help churches connect with families impacted by disability in their local communities.

FREE Consultation: Churches need not just resources, but relationships to effectively minister to families with disability. Key Ministry offers a FREE consultation service to churches of all sizes seeking to minister to families with disabilities, staffed by highly qualified and seasoned ministry leaders.

Inclusion Fusion logoInfluencing church leaders: We’re seeking opportunities to influence influence senior pastors and other church leaders to become champions of disability ministry and reaching out to seminaries for opportunities to train future pastors and church leaders.

Building institutional relationships: We’re seeking collaborations with like-minded ministry organizations (like CLC Network!) with complementary gift sets and interests, publishers, conference organizers, parachurch organizations, foundations and sponsors to optimize our capacity for casting influence with churches.

To reach people no one else is reaching, we have to try stuff no one else is trying. Key Ministry is honored to serve alongside other like-minded Christians and organizations in a disability movement leading to a future when there will be a church for every child.


Steve GrcevichStephen Grcevich, MD is Director of Strategic Initiatives for Key Ministry, after having served as the ministry’s Board Chairman from 2002-2014. He is a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry. Dr. Grcevich is a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Northeast Ohio Medical University, and has been involved with research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medication used to treat children and teens with depression, anxiety, ADHD and schizophrenia. He blogs at Church4EveryChild.