Stepping off the Sandbar: Sending our kids to college {with courage}

It has been 77 days since the band played “Pomp and Circumstance” and we watched our daughter march triumphantly across the field to receive her high school diploma.

Since then, we’ve been seemingly stuck in a pre-college no-man’s land…rather like running aground on a sandbar, and the tide just isn’t right for moving any of us.

And being stuck gives us time.

Time for preparations, like orientation, choosing a bedspread, and meeting a new roommate.

Time for “lasts:”  the last dinner with high school friends, the last day of church together, the last family vacation.

And time for new thoughts and plans and questions as she embraces the about-to-be freshman experience. She’s curious and excited and nervous.

Me too.

College conjures a new list of worries in my maternal mind:

Campus safety
Noisy dorms
Academic stress

West Nile Virus
I get a little carried away sometimes.

And yet, history tells me that all of these worries will likely be unfounded. We’ve endured many “firsts” with our children, and we’ve all emerged victorious…

However, these “firsts” require courage.

I remember our daughter’s first steps, her chubby legs lurching forward in syncopated rhythm (looking to us, like graceful ballet…) Similarly, I can see, in my mind’s eye, that terrifying, exhilarating moment when Tom let go of her bicycle seat, and she peddled that two-wheeler down the street and out of sight. And, in the blink of an eye, she was in the driver’s seat, possessing a shiny new laminated license, and driving right out of the neighborhood.

I have admired her mettle and determination at each of these rites of passage, and I know that these qualities will serve her well as she begins college next week.  All of these “firsts” that are prologue to the greater challenges that she will face in the grown-up world. This is another “first” in her journey, and it will take a great lot of courage for my daughter to step off the sandbar and swim toward the life God has planned for her.

And it will take a great lot of courage for me to let her go.


Messages from Moms: Gillian Marchenko

Happy Monday, everyone!
You are in for a treat today…I’m going to introduce you to another fabulous lady who loves God and loves her kids…and has much wisdom to share with all of us.

I met Gillian Marchenko through our mutual friend, Shannon Dingle. I instantly felt a connection to Gillian…we both have daughters who share a rare diagnosis. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Gillian through her writing and her always-honest facebook posts (which have me laughing and crying in equal measure!)

Today, Gillian answers a couple of questions about faith, family, and special needs:

Tell me a little bit about your children.

My husband Sergei and I parent four daughters: Elaina (11), Zoya (10), Polly (6), and Evangeline (5). Elaina is a voracious reader. Zoya likes science and math. Polly thinks she dances better than Angelina Ballerina, and Evangeline loves the swings at the park. Our kids are best friends. They make forts in the living room, and play Barbies. They all still try to cram into the bathtub before I catch them. “We fit, Mom. See, we all fit.”

 How does having children with special needs affect your family?

 Polly and Evangeline have Down syndrome. (Evangeline was adopted from Ukraine in 2009.)

Family life is busy: homework, laundry, therapy, fun Saturdays, work, church, walking the dog. I eat disability. It is clothing I wear. It wafts through my lungs every day, and yet, I forget about it because I am busy living. To us, Polly and Evangeline aren’t disabled. They are simply Polly and Evangeline.

But then I take a step back.

Not every family has weekly therapy and doctor appointments. Most five-year-olds are potty-trained. Families probably don’t plan Saturday activities around crowds, and noise, and chaos. We face these issues because our family is affected by special needs.

Having children with special needs affects our family positively too. Our children are raised with a sensitivity to those around them. Special needs slows down our lives. We celebrate everything at our house. A good grade on a test is a call to cheer. A kid meets a new therapy goal, you can be sure our gang is stoked. And we meet all kinds of wonderful people we probably, to be honest, wouldn’t have made time fore if it weren’t for Polly and Evangeline.

How has it affected your faith?

I want to be careful answering this question. It is easy to provide platitudes about the fearless mother and faithful child of God who clung to Jesus when she had a child with Down syndrome. A lot of people want to hear that from a pastor’s wife and former missionary. They are looking for encouragement. People of faith want to read about others who have persevered, fought the good fight, stayed true to their belief.

 I would have liked to behave better after Polly’s birth, to smile and pray and trust God in all things like the Bible teaches.  I would have liked to have remembered that children are a gift from God.  It’s what people in my circles would expect from me.  But in my humanity and grief, it didn’t happen. 

The truth is my faith nearly buckled with my daughter’s birth. I stopped praying. I struggled to love my family. My heart was pulverized like a piece of meat. It was six months of straight sucker punches to the gut.

One of the things I love about God is that he doesn’t let me get away with something for too long.  I am a toddler and he is the loving parent, pulling me back into the playpen at the exact time I’m about to fall over the edge.  My broken heart started to heal through the love of my child, and through a reconciliation with God regarding the purpose of my life.

Two of the biggest lessons God is teaching me as a parent to children with special needs are 1) life isn’t easy, and 2) God wants us to draw near to him.

Psalm 84:3 helps rebuild my heart.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God.”

Sparrows are friendly birds.  If a sparrow were on a housetop, it would be surrounded by half a dozen of its kind.  It is the most unusual thing in the world for a sparrow to sit alone.  It only happens when the bird’s mate has been killed or its nest and young have been destroyed.  In Psalm 84 the broken sparrow finds a home near God.  As I thought more about the sparrow and the swallow raising their young at a place near the altar of God, I kept thinking that God wanted me to gather up my family and move closer to him. 

That’s what I try to do. Some days I am successful. Other days, I’m not.

Gillian Marchenko is a Christian, wife, mother, writer, speaker, and advocate for individuals with special needs. She writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, imperfection, and adoption. Gillian’s work has appeared in MomSense Magazine, EFCA TODAY, Four Cornered Universe, CHICAGO PARENT, Story Bleed, and CHICAGO SPECIAL PARENT. Check out Gillian’s website at or find her at or on Twitter, @GillianMarchenk.

Additional note from Katie: Please visit Gillian’s facebook page and click “Like;” she has written a book and is hoping to have it published…we want that to happen! By clicking “like,” you’ll let publishers know you’d like to read her book! 🙂

To the Graduates: Don’t Forget Your Markers

Today, I wandered around the high school gym, watching the seniors give presentations about their two-week internships. This tiny taste of professional life has really whet their appetites for the real deal; the eagerness and enthusiasm was palpable.

So many of these beaming faces are familiar to me…I’ve seen them at my dinner table and on the swing set. They’re the faces from preschool playdates, kickball and Girl Scout camp. The boys now have sideburns and strong jaw lines where chubby cheeks used to be; mascara and lip gloss adorn girls’ faces that once wore chocolate frosting during cooking projects. They’re so grown up. So ready!

They’re graduating on Sunday, and yet I feel just like the mom of a kindergartener who is bounding up the steps of the bus.  I want to call, “Have fun! Do your best job! I’ll be right here when you get home…”

But that isn’t enough. I want to tell them just a few more things as they turn their tassels…

Dear Graduates,

From the time you were in preschool until now, you have been steeped in small-town security.  We live in a community that celebrates sameness. The seasons are punctuated by the very traditions that make our town unique…the Pumpkin Roll, the Lighting of the Green and Santa at Holly Hall, the Blossom Parade, Summer Concerts in Triangle Park.   When you return to Chagrin Falls for Thanksgiving break, you will find it vastly unchanged.

And, when it comes to home, “unchanged” can be a very, very good thing. Home should provide consistency and comfort…a slower, predictable pace,  with familiar faces and shared stories.

However, I don’t want YOU to be unchanged.

You’re going into new territory, with new people whose ideas and beliefs will be radically different from your own. You’ll be challenged to think about the world, and about your place in it. You’ll discover that finishing high school is, in fact, a profound starting point.

We’ve taught you well here in our little school district so that you’ll have the basic, essential skills you need as you move forward. You have worked so hard, and done well!You’ve learned how to read, add and subtract. You know about atoms and molecules and gravity. You can count money and make change. You discovered that pencil can be erased, but not markers.

I hope you will apply these skills at every opportunity…

Read…read people. Study them. Be interested and strive to understand them. Remember that the person next to you is more important than any text or tweet. And, best of all, learn to serve, because the best leaders serve humbly.

Add…Add friends. Add knowledge. Add a sense of humor.

Subtract… Subtract gossip and small-mindedness.  Subtract busy-ness that creates stress. Learn to balance your life well.

Apply what you have learned about atoms and molecules and gravity. You can’t see these things, but you know they exist…”Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” You were created by a loving God for a purpose. Cultivate your faith. Rest in the knowledge that God knows every hair on your head and understands the desires of your heart.

Make change…not with money, but with your life. Endeavor to make a difference with your work, your relationships and your community.

Don’t forget your markers. Consider, as you embark on this next adventure, how you want to be remembered. Choose your words and actions carefully; they can’t be erased. With this in mind, use your talents wisely, and with kindness. Make your mark.

And finally…Do your best job. Have fun.

We’ll be right here when you get home.


Mrs. Wetherbee