Once you are in high school, you begin to think about what you want to do after graduation. I always thought I would get married and have children. I had no interest in continuing my education, and I did not want to write another paper or do homework again in my life. I started to work for a preschool child care center soon after graduation, and within a few years, my boss informed me that I should think about taking some classes on child development through Grand Rapids Community College. I did not know what to say to her and was upset my entire drive home. I did not want to go to college, but after much prayer, I decided to schedule some child development classes.
One of the more interesting classes I remember was about children with special needs. At the time I remember wondering how beneficial that class would be. However, a short time later I began caring for some children at the child care center who had special needs. Over the years, I would find myself pulling out the syllabus and looking up different disabilities, as well as doing additional research at the library to help myself understand the different disabilities. I began to see the good in that conversation with my boss. The Lord used this schooling to mold and prepare me for different situations that would come up in my life.
The realization of what parents go through with caring for children with special needs was a little bit closer to my personal life. First, my nephew was diagnosed with autism. Soon after that, my good friend had a daughter who was born and diagnosed with the disability called Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy. As I visited and cared for those whom I loved, I became more interested to help as I was able. I saw the struggles that these parents went through day after day while caring for their children and began to wonder whether there was a small way I could help to lighten their load. As it turns out, there was.
In the spring of 2005, a notification was placed in the bulletins of our churches that help was needed with monthly outings that were held for children and adults with special needs. These outings continue to be held on the third Saturday of the month. The purpose of these outings is to give parents a small respite from caring for these children, as well as to involve those with special needs in activities with others who have disabilities. Through these outings, volunteers are able to interact with these children and adults while learning more about their disabilities. The committee was looking for volunteers to plan outings, as well as transport the members to outings and assist them with activities. I began volunteering at the outings and found it very rewarding to see these children and adults have so much fun while participating in the activities.
Soon, I was asked if I could help care for one of the adults, since her father was on a committee that involved her parents traveling from time to time. This experience taught me first-hand the many sacrifices that parents and caregivers go through to care for those with disabilities. It was a matter of getting up at 5:00 in the morning to help her with breakfast, make her lunch, and help her get ready for the bus by 7:00. As I sat there wondering if I had enough energy for the rest of the day, she was excited for the work that waited for her! The everyday activities that her parents completed were a lesson for me to learn. For instance, while our fingers are perfectly capable of opening a zip lock baggie, she would need her baggies closed with only one twist of the twisty tie to make it easy for her to open the bag.
As I think back to that weekend, I am still awestruck by what is required of a parent who has a child with special needs. Some of these children and adults will live with their parents for their whole life, which requires many sacrifices by the parents. We can see in this a beautiful example of God’s grace being sufficient in every circumstance. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 we read, “Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.” We learn from this verse the importance of offering our support and encouragement to parents of children with special needs. These parents need our continual prayers that they be content in the way in which the Lord has led them.
About three years ago I heard that Georgetown Harmony Homes needed a weekend caregiver in the girl’s home. Georgetown Harmony Homes has two homes that were built for developmentally disabled adults. Each home has six bedrooms, as well as many features to handle handicaps of all kinds. I applied for this position because it interested me, but I have gained way more knowledge than one could imagine. During one weekend every month, I am responsible for providing a caring atmosphere for the residents. I am also responsible for making meals, helping with house cleaning chores, and assisting the residents with laundry and personal care.
Before I could start this job, the state required that I take two classes. The first class was on medication administration. While working at the home, I must have each resident’s medicine ready in the morning and at night. Not only must the residents take the medicine prescribed by their doctor, but they must also take vitamins and supplements to support their immune system. It is my job to record properly the medication administered, even if it is just a Tylenol. The records must be very detailed, including the amount of medication the residents received, the time they received the medication, and the reason they took what I administered. It is important for me to make sure I put all the medication for each resident into a cup without physically touching and contaminating the pills. Then I make sure when I set it down that the right resident takes the right medication. As I set my alarm for the next morning, I need to be aware of how long it might take me to prepare meds before 8 AM. If a resident leaves to go on vacation or overnight to their parent’s house, I must have the medication ready to send home and have the parents sign it out. Also, it is essential to be conscious of food allergies when cooking, and if a resident is lactose intolerant, I must record and administer a pill for that as well.
The other class I had to take was on resident’s rights. There are state and federal laws that allow these residents to have the same rights as you and I. It is important to remember that they are able to make many decisions for themselves. It is important to note that in this job, like that of a teacher or doctor, there is a certain right to protect the resident and understand the confidentiality involved. This is essential to remember when working with children and adults with special needs.
As part of my job at Harmony Homes, I am required to plan an activity for the residents to do on Saturday that involves them in the community. This is the most enjoyable part of my job. Through these activities, I have learned patience and been taught many lessons from these adults. It is a blessing to be able to see the joy that these residents have in the activities that are planned. There are endless possibilities for activities, from visiting an orchard to completing an activity at Home Depot. Recently I took the residents there to complete a bird house project. The residents nailed the bird houses together, and one of them commented that they did not know it was so easy to nail something together. They also were able to spend time painting them, and I had to explain to a blind resident what colors were on the plate so she could to paint her bird house. The girls were excited with what they were able to achieve, and looked forward to giving their bird houses away once they were completed!
Another privilege of my job is to help the girls make meals. They get right into the kitchen and put toppings on the homemade pizza, or they help assemble the burritos before I put them in the oven. They also have chores that they are required to do, such as rinsing off their own plates after meals before loading them into the dishwasher, sorting and washing their clothes, and dusting and vacuuming their rooms. Just as they have jobs around the house, there are jobs in the community that they keep busy with during the day. Many of the residents have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus by 6:30, and they all are out of the house for a good portion of the day. Yet I never hear them complain about getting up so early or grumble about making their lunch. They do these things cheerfully, which is something we can learn from their example. The Friday night dinner table is always filled with talk of the work week, like collecting the grocery carts from around the parking lot during the rain storm or cleaning someone else’s food tray.
As I read the devotional after supper, the girls ask questions about the meaning of the Bible story. I am reminded that most of them did not grow up going to church twice a Sunday, never attended catechism, and did not have other learning privileges that we take for granted. Just recently at their Thursday night special ministries, the girls studied The Lord’s Prayer. How many of us learned that when we were younger?
It is truly wonderful that the children at some of our Christian schools are able to participate in special classes that teach about a handful of the different disabilities that we come into contact with. I encourage teachers to make a point of talking to their students and helping them to realize that there are areas in which others in the classroom need help. After all, we are all given different abilities and talents in order to help each other in the kingdom of our Lord. A few verses that would be helpful to these teachers in their discussion on special needs are Psalm 139:14–16, which reads “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.” I would also urge people to inquire about the outings that our churches hold for our children and adults with special needs. Our committee already put out the need for help last spring, since we can always use more help at these outings. The majority of outings are local and do not cost much at all, but a huge reward is the benefit for attending. Another way to help is to be more considerate and offer help in times when you see a need arise. The child or adult will let you know if they do not need help, but it can be very frustrating to the one in need when they are watched and not offered help of any kind. Romans 15:1 says “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Think on these words if the situation arises.
I hope through reading this article you have been given insight into a few of the everyday tasks we often take for granted that a parent or caregiver of a person with special needs must be available for. Whether it is words of encouragement, a prayer, or holding the door so someone in a wheelchair can get through, it is my constant prayer that we can be used to help those with special needs in a patient, loving way. I also hope that I have planted the seed for some of you to think about jobs that involve working with those with special needs. I know that Harmony Homes can always use patient and dedicated people to be called “weekend caregivers.”
I saw a wall hanging once that read “Let Go, Let God.” This was a good reminder to me that with God, anything is possible. Whatever the disability may be, it is little in comparison to what God can help us with. After finishing my weekends at Harmony Homes, I excitedly with the psalmist say, “I delight to do Thy will, O my God” (Ps. 40:8). It is my prayer that as parents, caregivers, teachers, and others within the church, you are able to experience as I have God’s purpose for including these children and adults within the kingdom of Christ. This is evident in 1 Corinthians 12:18–22. “But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.”