Festival Celebrates Inclusive Friendships Among Kids

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has–or ever will have–something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” – Mr. Rogers

Students participating in "cross-country skiing"

Students participating in “cross-country skiing”.

This quote from Fred Rogers is so fitting for the atmosphere of encouragement and camaraderie at the recent Friendship Festival, a day of inclusive activities and games for students at all levels of ability from West Michigan elementary and middle CLC Network member schools. Olympic-style games, activities, and worship organized by Jenison Christian eighth-grade students created opportunities for everyone to shine – whether it be in working as a team in “cross-country skiing”, coloring a Friendship Festival bag, trying out hallway “curling”, decorating a cookie with mounds of candy, passing the ball in pool-noodle floor hockey, pushing a teammate on a “bobsled”, or singing praise songs to God. It was a lively event filled with plenty of high-fives, enthusiastic cheering, and encouraging words throughout.

Students participating in "curling"

Kids enjoyed hallway “curling” in these Olympic-style games.

The beauty I experienced during these inclusive games was the genuine attitude of acceptance and understanding that they reflected. As the Friendship Festival theme proclaimed, these young students truly believe that they are “Champions for Christ”. They understand that they are each valued equally in the eyes of God and have God-given gifts to contribute to His Kingdom. It has become a natural way of life for each of them to accept their friend with a learning, cognitive, and/or physical difference. This difference adds to the diversity of their school, and more so, to the diversity of God’s world, shaping their perspective of life for years to come.

IMG_4020Friendship Festival provides a set-apart time for these gifts and friendships to be celebrated and cherished, creating highlights of the year for the many students involved. I’m grateful to have witnessed this glimpse of the Kingdom – a place where each person contributes and belongs. Praise God for that!

Visit our Facebook page for more photos from this event. And learn about our inclusive banquet for high school students at this link.


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

High Schoolers Celebrate Friendships at Spring Banquet

Entertainment at ConnectionsIn a little over a week, students and alumni from Calvin, Northpointe, and South Christian High Schools will join together to celebrate friendships between students at all levels of ability at the annual, student-run Connections Banquet.

As South Christian High School Inclusion Specialist and leader of the Connections Banquet Ellie VanKeulen pointed out, “Our purpose is to provide a memorable evening for individuals with special needs and their friends, an evening of fun, a celebration of each participants’ gifts, and full inclusion as children of God’s Kingdom!”

Our friend Tim, an alumni of South Christian, is an enthusiastic fan of the banquet.

“I like to go out to eat and attend a banquet just like my other friends do.  About 15 years ago a South Christian group started doing a banquet to let us have a fancy party like everybody else – our own kind of banquet.  I have gone every year since it started.  Let me tell you one thing for sure: I wouldn’t miss it for any reason.”

Dancing at the banquetAnd Tim isn’t the only one that doesn’t want to miss out. Since its inception, the Connections Banquet has grown from 60 participants from one high school to 240 from three schools. It’s become so popular, this year we had to move to a larger venue! Praise God! All of the participants enjoy spending the evening with their friends. Tim recalled some of his favorite parts of the banquet:

It gives me a chance to get out with others and have fun.  After all what’s not to like – there are lots of cool things:

      1. Awesome decorations
      2. A FREE picture of me with friends – Yes!  It’s free!
      3. Fun games
      4. Really cool entertainment
      5. WOW – Lots of pretty girls
      6. Spectacular food – NOT McDonalds

This upcoming evening will be a beautiful display of positive Christian community. And when the plates are empty, the dance floor diminished, and the camera memory is full, the banquet won’t be complete until everyone joins together and sings “Friends are Friends Forever”. As the Michael W. Smith song says:

“Friends are friends forever
If the Lord’s the Lord of them
And a friend will not say never
‘Cause the welcome will not end
Though it’s hard to let you go
In the Father’s hands we know
That a lifetime’s not too long
To live as friends”

Though everyone parts ways at the end of the evening, each person goes home reminded of how deeply they are loved by their community and their God.

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

School Profile: Sussex Christian School

Sussex Christian SchoolThis year, we partnered with our first school in New Jersey: Sussex Christian School. Founded in 1958, Sussex Christian serves students from northern New Jersey and neighboring areas of New York and Pennsylvania. Today, they enroll 142 students annually.

Like many schools, they have always served students with learning disabilities, but hadn’t been able to welcome students with higher needs until recently. Two years ago, Corey VanderGroef enrolled, the youngest of six children to attend Sussex Christian School. At the time, Corey was non-verbal and had significant communication impairments.

Corey’s language immediately exploded.

“We knew we did the right thing,” recalls Corey’s mom, Tracy. “Every child should be educated and know they are loved by God.” Last Christmas, Corey told the Christmas story in front of his class with an illustration he had made.

Corey and classmates

Corey and his classmates act out a skit on graduation day.

Corey has been a blessing to his classmates as well. He plays with everyone, his mother says, bringing his favorite toys to share on the playground. He is a comfort to new students especially, who appreciate his friendliness.

Because of their experience with Corey, Sussex was able to welcome another student with high needs this year. Their vision for an inclusive Kingdom is coming true, one student at a time.

“Corey changed this school for the future,” administrator Trish King explains. “We want to be able to welcome every student, educate them to the fullest extent, and help them be who God designed them to be.”

Last fall, we traveled to Sussex to conduct a site study, a two-day intensive observation of the school’s current gifts and growth areas as related to inclusive education. Barbara Newman recalls, “When I arrived, it was clear SCS already had a commitment and passion for inclusion. In talking through the suggestions and ideas from the site study, you could sense the energy building, knowing this could be an option for their school. After meeting with board, administration, staff, and some parents, the pull and desire to create inclusive community grew even stronger. I’m eager to see what God does in this community!”

Class project

Administrator Trish King with students.

Today, Sussex Christian School’s board is laying the groundwork for a long-term commitment to students at all levels of ability and disability. Their inclusion committee is beginning to explore funding models and best practices in special education services. They are starting by welcoming all children of already enrolled families, and preparing for the new families who may come for these services.

“We would love to see any family become comfortable with bringing their children to Sussex Christian. God’s children are all different,” reflects Ms. King. “We’ve already seen those classes with inclusive education students often get along better, and those students are missed when they aren’t around.”

We are proud to partner with Sussex Christian School, and we look forward to helping their community grow as they embrace students with high needs.

Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network. This post originally appeared in the Inclusive – Fall 2013 newsletter. Read other stories from this bi-annual publication and sign up to receive it on our website.

An Inclusive Congregation – Changes Our Church Made to Welcome All

Our friend, Michael Sherriff from Parkside Community Church (Westwood, New Jersey) saw a need within his church to welcome and include people with disabilities in their congregation. Last February, he applied for and received our free G.L.U.E. (Giving, Loving, Understanding and Encouraging) Training Manual and DVD and soon set out to organize an inclusion training day for volunteer members of his church. Michael shared with us some of the immediate and long-term changes Parkside Community Church made to welcome people with all levels of ability.

Parkside Congregation

Parkside Congregation

One immediate change was to invite everyone to read Scripture during church services. Our participation in reading Scripture during worship has been embraced with more enthusiasm than I ever expected. I’m not sure our pastor even planned on receiving such a large response. Parkside Community Church is a relatively small congregation with Sunday attendance averaging between 30 – 50 people. The list of participants just started their second round of reading about 2 months ago. In the planning stage, my pastor mentioned that anyone 13 years old or older who could read could sign up to read during worship. I disagreed as that was not the intention; anyone from infancy or older should be able to read during the service if they are led to participate. I promised to assist anyone in whatever capacity was needed to allow each person the chance to read Scripture during service.

Scripture doesn’t need to be spoken perfectly for us to hear, because really, what we are hearing is not what Jesus hears. What matters more is what we are sincerely offering to Jesus from the heart. The Scripture text is emailed or handed out a week in advance. It is also printed in large print and left on the lectern where the reading takes place. This proactive approach has yielded positive results by helping participants prepare prior to their opportunity to read scripture. On the other hand, there are some folks in the congregation who still struggle with the idea of reading scripture due to their anxiety and fear. I am praying with time we can encourage and work with them to get involved because the barriers of exclusion are constantly being broken down.

Another way we have met people’s unique needs is by switching over to a large print bulletin (as opposed to our folded 8½ x 11 bulletin). This larger bulletin has a larger font size, making it easier for everyone to read. We did not want to single any person out by offering some a large print, while others received regular bulletins. As a result, everyone at a Sunday service receives this new bulletin.

In addition to the announcements listed in the bulletin, we now also display them on the screen at the end of service while Pastor Rodney shares them with the congregation. People are less likely to get distracted by this visual reinforcement.  We hope this will be helpful for persons with invisible disabilities such as ADHD.

We also wanted to express God’s love to the greater Westwood community. Pastor Rodney approached me about a local recreation program for children with different levels of abilities. We decided to partner with this community program by providing scholarships so families who lacked the funds could participate. Pastor Rodney said he was truly blessed when he showed up at the recreational meeting and presented the check for the scholarships.

G.L.U.E. Training Manual and DVD

Since presenting the G.L.U.E. training, I have seen a desire from both the church leadership and the congregation to become more inclusive. I have seen a majority of the congregation experience a transformation in their own attitudes. The result is a desire for more training and people willing to embrace the G.L.U.E. model of Giving, Loving, Understanding and Encouraging.

For me, the best outcome from the G.L.U.E. training was it started a necessary conversation. I feel most people believe it will be expensive to embrace inclusion. But, we have been able to implement very low or no cost solutions with positive outcomes to further welcome everyone and become more inclusive as a larger community. The G.L.U.E. materials are presented and supported throughout with strong Biblical principles. In addition, participants learned to recognize how each person is a piece of the larger puzzle and is therefore, crucial in the kingdom of God.

From the G.L.U.E. process, I believe we are better equipped moving forward and asking the right questions:

For example, what does it mean to be accessible, inclusive and mission- driven within our own community? What blessings has the church been missing by not recognizing the principles taught throughout the G.L.U.E. process? Can we welcome and bless more individuals throughout the community by understanding each person’s inherent value in the Kingdom of God? Can the church continue to move forward and eliminate multiple stereotypes and barriers which prevent individuals from worship?

With the CLC Network and their G.L.U.E. training curriculum, I was able to provide answers to these questions in a comprehensive manner. The program is accompanied by a wealth of resources and tools which has helped me to implement the G.L.U.E. process.

Michael Sheriff IMGMichael Sheriff is the disability concerns regional advocate for the Greater Palisades Classis and local advocate for Parkside Community Church.

Donor Profile: Bob and Trudy Van Wieren

Van Wieren imageBob and Trudy Van Wieren have spent most of their lives in Christian schools, since they met as first graders at Highland Christian School in Highland, Indiana.  Over that long history, they have witnessed the transformation that inclusive education has brought to Christian schools, making them passionate advocates for CLC Network’s mission of creating inclusive communities.

As young students, Bob and Trudy recall a common lack of understanding for people with disabilities.  Kids with disabilities weren’t part of the community, and often didn’t attend church or school with other students.  Trudy and Bob contrast that with the experiences of their own grandchildren, who are attending inclusive schools.

“Our kids and grandchildren will never say they are afraid of those who have different needs,” shares Trudy.  “I’m not even sure those differences are even in their vocabulary.  Their friendships with students in special education are simply matter-of-fact.”

Bob and Trudy moved to Byron Center, Michigan in 1985 for Bob’s position as principal at Byron Center Christian School.  One of his first tasks was to start a special education program at the school, so he met with the Christian Learning Center to learn how to do it.

Trudy and Bob give credit CLC Network’s executive director, R.H. “Bear” Berends, for launching fully inclusive programs at area Christian Schools. “His legacy is really incredible.  When he started talking about all of our children being part of the covenant, about belonging to all of us, that really made sense to me,” recalls Bob.  “The school community never really balked at the idea, it just felt like this is the way the Kingdom is supposed to be.

Bob has worked at Christian Schools International (CSI), Calvin Christian Schools, and today serves as Accreditation Program Director for CSI.  He often travels the country visiting Christian schools on behalf of CSI.

“Many Christian schools are realizing that they should include kids with disabilities, but they just don’t know how,” Bob shares.  “Sharing CLC Network’s help is really important right now.”

As current Board President, Bob devotes a significant amount of time to guiding CLC Network’s future.  He’s excited to see CLC Network grow to serve schools across the country and to meet those community’s needs.

Trudy recalls learning about a family who had to send their daughter far away to become part of a community, when students with those same disabilities were getting on the bus in their home communities with her own kids.  Trudy and Bob ask, “Why wouldn’t you want your children to see all of us as part of God’s Kingdom?


To encourage our online friends to give, a generous donor will TRIPLE your online gift through the end of 2013. Give now to help us offer our services at a reduced rate to schools and churches across the country.