Inclusion OUTSIDE of the Church? Let’s Party!

Special needs inclusion doesn’t have to occur only within the walls of the local church…it should extend into the community and into our homes. Attending a youth event or a church supper is wonderful, but think of the possibilities for building the Kingdom when we build lasting relationships that extend into our lives every day.

To do this, we need to have a hospitality mindset that takes into account the possible needs of our guests. Many times, when we invite acquaintances to a community event or a party in our home, we don’t know if they have any special needs. So, as we plan, we need to consider what will make our guests comfortable, using the knowledge we have about disabilities.

Recently, we offered to host a cast party for a teen theater company’s production of Xanadu. About 25 kids, along with adult directors and a couple of chaperones joined us to celebrate a great production. We knew some of the kids pretty well, and some we had never met. I didn’t know if any of the kids had been diagnosed with special needs, but for my own peace of mind, as the hostess, my planning included hospitality strategies designed to make every teen comfortable. Join me behind the scenes for some tips on “inclusive” party planning…

1. Food and Beverages. When inviting people to our home for the first time, I always ask if they have food allergies or sensitivities. For this party, there were none, but I did communicate that we would be serving hot dogs. I asked the kids to bring either chips or a dessert; this ensures that everyone will have at least one food item they enjoy.

2. Put out the welcome mat. Coming to an unfamiliar home can be anxiety-producing for some people.Therefore, it’s important to make the environment as predictable as possible. For this party, we hung a big sign on the front of our house so that everyone knew they were at the right place.

In addition, we put a sign on the door to let them know the etiquette for getting inside. My husband was stationed in the entryway (a quiet space) to ease the transition.


3. Have some fun…We created a few decorations that made a statement. This gave the kids something to talk about as they arrived, and also let everyone know that this event was special…a celebration! We wanted to recognize the hard work of the cast, crew and directors.

4…but not TOO much fun. Notice that our dining room was completely devoid of glitzy decorations. This was by design…we wanted a quieter space for any students who might need a break from the crowd and conversation in the kitchen/family room area.

5. Give them something to DO. The beginning of a party can be a little awkward as people arrive one by one, or in small groups. To ease this awkwardness, we had some fun 70’s glitz and glamour available (in keeping with the theme of the party!) The kids had a great time trying on sunglasses, visors and necklaces. These items also gave them something to fidget with, which can be very helpful for some students (and adults, too!)

Even Mitzie, the “Xanadog” got into the action…

6. Don’t go it alone. Be sure that you have plenty of support and supervision for your guests…this is necessary for safety! On the left is my friend, Jenny…she is awesome. 

7. Make it personal. Everyone likes to be individually recognized…and everyone matters! To accomplish this, we decorated the kitchen and family room with personalized stars. The guests had a great time finding  their star, and it allowed us an opportunity to learn their names (a bonus for us!)

These ideas are all based squarely in common sense…if you’ve planned a get-together for teens, you’ve likely done all of these things. However, I hope you’ll consider these inclusive planning strategies as you plan your next party, remembering that the tiny accommodations you make can truly make all the difference to your guests.

And a good time was had by all…


Joy, or “Just Wait?”

As I wait at Target, a young couple pushes a stroller in the line behind me. The stroller, brand new, appears to be on its maiden voyage. I  peer at the tiny sleeping newborn, his fingers curled up near his ruddy face.

“You guys do good work!” I comment. The parents beam with pride, but the weariness in their eyes lets me know that they are all still in the process of getting to know each other. The lady behind the couple glances at the stroller as well, and asks. “Is this your first?” They nod proudly.  “Just wait…” she snorts, and then follows with a comment about unruly teenagers.

Inwardly, I wince. We seem to live in a country overrun by a great lot of negative naysayers when it comes to parenting. I remember hearing comments like that when I was a new (and overwhelmed!) mom.  It seemed that many parents were suffering from a chronic case of disappointment and dissatisfaction called “Just-Wait-itis,” characterized by the inflammation of impending doom in parenthood….I felt trapped in a swirl of know-it-alls who were warning me that the worst was yet to come.

Of course, now that my kids are teenagers, I know the truth. Parenting is complicated; it’s wonderful and challenging. Exhausting and gut wrenching. Heart warming and heart breaking.

And, at the outset, parenting can be utterly daunting. It just doesn’t help when others douse young parents with stories leading to doubt and despair.

Instead, we seasoned moms could infuse joy into our “just waits…” As I regard this weary pair, I think of so many things I could say…

Just wait until your preschool son sees you in the hallway at pick up time and covertly grins and waves to you. (It’s the best flirting in the world.)

Just wait until you watch your kindergartener jump off the bus after that first day, triumphant and tired, melting into your arms.

Just wait until your son is up to bat, and strikes out, holding it together despite disappointment. And just wait until the crack of the bat meeting the ball surprises him and he races to first base…safe.

Just wait until your daughter stands up for a classmate who is struggling, and her peers, humbled, apologize.

Just wait until your child, painfully tethered to tubes and machines in the hospital, whispers, “I just want my mommy.” (and you are suddenly aware that your presence is more powerful than any prescription.)

Just wait until your son gets his very first summer job and he is, unmistakably, walking taller and more confidently as a result.

Just wait until your child’s quick sense of humor makes you double over with laughter.

Just wait until you hear your son invite a friend to church.

Just wait until your daughter receives her first college acceptance and you find yourself overcome with tears…not because she’s leaving, but because she’s ready.

The baby in the stroller whimpers, breaking my reverie.

I smile at the couple and look them straight in the eye.

“You have so much joy ahead of you…” I remark…

“Just wait.”

Wishing you joy today~

Communication and Confidentiality: Building Trust

Before we dive into our next topic, here is a little news: Our communication contest has been extended until FRIDAY, January 27 at 6 pm EST. I spoke with a ministry leader yesterday who would like her volunteers to take a crack at this, so we’re giving them a little extra time…which means YOU have some extra time, too! I’ve gotten some great entries, and look forward to reading YOURS as well…email me!

During the past week, we’ve discussed ways to communicate positively and effectively about children with special needs. Whether we are sending emails, having a Skype conversation, or talking face-to-face, our communication needs to be above reproach; every single child about whom we’re talking is treasured by a parent. (just like God treasures us!)

Every child is unique…and so is every parent. Thus, parents’ communication styles and expectations may vary widely. Some parents might come to you with more information than you think you need. Others will drop off their child without a word…just a weary look of relief. A few might even show up on Sunday morning and, with palpable frustration, say, “Here. You deal with him for a while.”

Research about parent-teacher relationships tells that shared expectations leads to more positive, collaborative problem-solving (and higher rates of learning for children!) That’s why it’s important for us to communicate clearly about our plans for kids’ programming, rules for behavior and also our own need for information. One way to do this is by providing a covenant like this one, which clearly lists the rights and responsibilities of everyone (including the child!)

Inclusion Ministry Covenant

And now…a little problem solving! Last week, I received an email from a colleague with this question:

In the past, a parent was upset that we had talked about her child in a Buddy meeting without her present. We thus changed our meeting agendas to be general topics like how to calm an upset child rather than how to calm “James”. We do communicate with parents about any concerns after service. Would you as a parent be upset that this group exists and you are not part of it?

My answer:

It’s hard for parents sometimes when they feel like people are “talking behind their back…” even though your purpose is NOT gossip, but rather, good, solid problem-solving. I think that you can be honest with all parents and say that you, as a ministry team, have regularly scheduled meetings during which you plan, pray and problem-solve. Including parents in these meetings isn’t necessarily appropriate, as you’ll be discussing LOTS of kids’ needs. If a parent expresses that he/she would like to be included, by all means, find a way to include the parent…through email, a separate meeting, a phone call, etc. Also, reflect on the parents’ feelings, if possible: “I can tell from what you are saying that it’s uncomfortable to have people planning for your child when you aren’t involved.” See if this helps the parent to express her feelings about this, and use it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship –and trust–with her.

Would I be upset if the group existed and I wasn’t part of it? Hmmm…I think the upset would come from finding out the group existed and I didn’t know about it. This happened to me once…a group was talking about my kid and I had NO idea she was being observed. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call that someone was going to “take Annie out of the class and work 1:1 with her because she needs help.” That was VERY hard…because everything had been going so well, and I had no idea she needed help. As it turned out, the call was made from a new, overly exuberant volunteer…in fact, my child DIDN’T need extra help at all. However, it took a while for me to re-build my trust with the ministry team.

After receiving my email response, my colleague sent a note back to me and summed up this week’s theme beautifully:

Good communication builds trust.

Stay tuned…Tomorrow: A few online sites to facilitate communication + Five Facts for Friday.