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…


Shooting in Chardon: Searching for the right “mettle” detectors

I had a long list of “to-do’s” this morning, but my plans have been thwarted by a local-turned-national news story; there has been a shooting at Chardon High School. Chardon is an idyllic town very near to our own. I have worked with families there, and have colleagues who teach there. I listened this morning as a local news team interviewed a mother whose son had texted her from the locked-down cafeteria. The panic rose like mercury in her voice until a sob escaped. I can’t fathom that intensity of distress. Nor can I wrap my mind around the horror of learning that my child had been shot and life-flighted to Metro, our trauma center…or the unimaginable, crushing shock of grief at hearing that my child had died.

As my mind spirals, I also wonder about the pain of learning that my child had entered the school this morning, taken a gun from his coat, and pulled the trigger.

Newscasters have repeatedly asked this morning if Chardon has installed metal detectors in order to protect the students. I suppose this is a fair question, as our human minds try to make sense of this tragedy. We try hard to find a breach of security that allowed danger in, so we can understand and prevent more damage. We woefully shake our heads, bemoaning the fact that schools are supposed to be a “safe harbor,” and a “sanctuary of learning.”

The reality is, though, that we’re searching for the wrong metal detectors.

We could, as a reaction to today’s events, install metal detectors at every door to every classroom in every school. However, we won’t be able to prevent the kind of wounds that are inflicted daily in our schools, neighborhoods and even our homes…the snide comments, the eye-rolling, the exclusion and bullying that leave lasting emotional and spiritual wounds. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 88% of students in grades 7-12 report that they have witnessed online bullying and  done nothing.

BUT…This means that 12% reacted, and did something or said something to stop the bullying. Knowing what teens risk when they stand up to their peers, this takes tremendous fortitude and bravery. It takes mettle.

And that’s the kind of mettle we need to detect, reinforce and encourage in our young people. We need to model it as well, so that our kids can see us standing up to those who are needlessly hurtful and show them how to build each other up. And, we need to demonstrate how to reconcile, find common ground, and form positive relationships that grow healthy communities.

To our friends in Chardon, we can’t rightly imagine…but we will pray for healing in your community as you work through this tragedy.

And we’ll pray that we have the mettle to change things for the better.

Proactive Partnering: Including the “Most Valuable Player”

Last week, we talked a little bit about proactive strategies to enhance communication between parents and church staff.  When adults put their heads together, great things usually happen. However, we need to be sure we include the “most valuable player” in all of this: the student!

But wait!” you might be saying, “We need to leave the decision-making up to the adults. After all, they know best!”

There’s truth to that statement; adults do have wisdom and perspective when it comes to educational or church planning. However, when we include the student, we accomplish some important things:

  • We encourage the student to understand him/herself better
  • The student (hopefully!) learns that pastors and teachers are approachable and available.
  • The student may have more “buy-in” to the programs and classes because he/she feels a measure of participation and control in the planning.

When we include students, we also help to lay a foundation for life-long spiritual growth. Each of the students in our programs and families has unique and special talents and strengths. Part of our jobs as parents, pastors and teachers involves helping kids understand and appreciate their own strengths so they can use them for the Kingdom. In addition, we can help students know their areas of weakness or need; we can then demonstrate support and encouragement in those areas. In short, we need to teach kids that EVERY member of the Body is useful and necessary!

So, how can we accomplish this? Children and youth–with or without disabilities– have varying levels of ability to understand and communicate their strengths and needs. However, the adults in the child’s life can ease the process by creating meaningful opportunities for the child to interact with the pastors or teachers. Some ideas:

  • Help the child to create a picture of him/herself (or, depending on the child’s skill level, create a piece of art rather than a self-portrait)
  • Take a picture of the student and help the student to send it via email to the church staff or teacher, with a list of the child’s strengths/needs or with a note of introduction.
  • Consider using some or all of the questions on this template for students who can dictate answers or write them independently: Let Me Introduce Myself

Bear in mind: This is not appropriate for all students and all situations…and that’s okay. As parents, we don’t want to overwhelm church staff and volunteers with information, nor do we want to withhold information. In addition, we don’t want to press children or youth into disclosing needs in a way that would embarrass them or deter their participation. This is, however, an excellent opportunity to model communication about our own strengths and needs, with honesty and humility; kids will often follow our lead if we can do this in healthy and productive ways.

What ideas do YOU have for including students in proactive communication? Tell me here or leave a comment below.

Power to the (little) people!

Stay tuned: JAM Review, training opportunities, and a bit of fun