I regularly meet with a group of special needs dads about once a month at a sports bar near my home. While this is not a faith based group, I take a lot of motivation from it as we are all fathers who love our children despite our various challenges, and I consider every guy to be loving and caring. During one of our first meetings, one of the dads asked a very profound, but familiar question for us: “Do your kids have any friends?” A silent resignation filled the room, as if to say we all knew the answer to the question, and somehow didn’t even need to open our mouths to answer.
I mustered a little courage and began to explain our situation, as I reluctantly responded with a “well, no, but…” after which I started to explain how my son has the neighbor homeschooled family that watches him some days before and after school, his one classmate whose parents are good friends of ours, and the rest of his special needs classroom. All of us knew that my answer wasn’t really answering the question since, as for everyone else, the lengthy response still ended in a plain and simple no. But that then begs us to ask a different question, that is, how do children like ours make friends? I find that I’m very blessed to say that I may have found one answer for that, and now looking back on an incredible experience that we have traveled with my son the last couple of years, I can’t help but share this. It started as many things do in our time, with one simple email.
I was riding on a school bus with a day camp I directed in the summer of 2016 when I received the first request in my email from the founder of a nonprofit organization known as The Nora Project, which was started as an outreach program for special needs students to develop friendships with typical peers in a buddy classroom at a school in their community. The inspiration for the project came from the founder’s own experiences with her cousin’s special needs daughter, and how her mother feared how she would navigate the world without meaningful relationships. This then spawned a conversation between her and several other teachers at her school who decided to create a year long project to connect special needs students with their own buddy room, schedule in school visits with students and share things about themselves and their lives, and create genuine and meaningful friendships with their typical peers, all building up to the creation of a video documentary about the student that would then be shown at a celebration at the end of the school year.
The email I received came through one of the administrators at my son’s elementary school, since several families my son attends school with had already participated in it, and so they were now looking for new families. I had already seen some photos and postings on Facebook through the parents I was connected with that had already done it, so I knew this was a great opportunity. Admittedly, I had to sit for a second and process whether or not this was a good idea, and not from the standpoint of it not being a great concept, but whether or not we could make it work with our schedule.
If you’re a parent you know how challenging the fine balance of school and home life is, but a special needs parent knows you have a whole extra set of struggles and demands with running the household schedule. In our house, we have a calendar that my wife lovingly fills in at the beginning of the year, and then adds double or triple to it each month, and since we are both teachers and have a school aged child, that means essentially three calendars. With a limited number of days off, and the usual amount of required days home for weather/sickness/IEP meetings and the like, there isn’t much spare time to go around to visit a buddy classroom.
But I allowed Spirit to fill me up, took a deep breath and thought, he won’t get another opportunity like this, so why not, I’ll figure it out. I sent the reply before the bus reached our destination, and said yes I would be interested. When I came home and filled my wife in, I explained what the project was all about, how great the experience of our friends’ kids was, and finally the most important words she needed to hear, “I’ll be the one to take off work and bring him.” It was settled, and we awaited our assignment for the school and classroom and follow up with the coordinator.
I felt God’s hand on our involvement right from the beginning, as I was excited to hear that our buddy room would be at the school the project started at, in a 4th grade classroom right across from the classroom of the project founder. The first step of the process was to create a short video of our child and our family, to help introduce us to the class. The intensity of our notorious schedule reared its ugly head as I got right down to the deadline to make it, and then due to technical difficulties had trouble putting one together on my son’s iPad. We wound up using a video we made a couple years earlier for a disability awareness talk at his school, which although showing a fairly younger version of our son, still gave them a peek at to his likes and interests. The rest I figured, I would fill in when we came to visit, flexing my teacher muscles and feelings that it was just another classroom of kids to speak in front of. But this was not just another group of kids, and definitely not just any visit.
The first day we came and walked into the office of the school, we were greeted by several students escorts who came to pick us up and welcome him the school. I was immediately touched by the ways the students came up to him, spoke to him and not at him with wide smiles and happy voices, they were genuinely glad to meet him. We walked through the hallways and wound our way to the classroom, where the whole class was waiting on the rug in a corner of the room, and I sat in the usual teacher pose in front of them, this time juggling my 8 year old on my lap.
I opened up with sharing some basic things about my son, referring to the video to speak to who he was and what he liked, and brought some of his favorite books and some other pictures to speak about our family and whole life. After some basic Q & A from the crowd, we did some activities the kids had planned out, quickly remembering that my son, being as gross motor as he is, wasn’t too interested in leaving one classroom earlier in the day to go spend time in another, so I had to explain, that he may not sit too long for the various art projects or table games they had planned.
One thing he did respond to was freeze dance, and when the teacher cranked up some favorite G rated songs on her speakers, and the kids moved the desks out of the way in the middle of the room, we found his niche, and he moved around the room happy and excitedly. The actual time of that and the following visits were never very long, maybe a half hour tops, but long enough for him to connect with the other students and get comfortable. Each time we came it got a little easier, and we were able to share and a little more, and as went along both in the first year and then this past year, there were some very special milestones that we got to present. The one that stands out the most is showing how he uses his iPad as a communication device, and while when we first started coming it was used more for entertainment and basic learning games, as we progressed over the months he was able to show not just pictures and videos of what he could do, but he could also explain some of it and answer basic yes and no questions. My favorite response that he gave on his iPad when we first sat down to one particular visit? “I need to go to the bathroom.” He in fact did, and I was proud of how well he used his device.
In April we made our final visit, and this was exceedingly emotional for a variety of reasons, mostly due to the fact that the students would be conducting interviews with myself and mom, as well his grandmother and his aunt he spends a lot of time with him. While the students conducted the interviews as part of the final documentary in another room, he got to do some of his favorite things with the students. The middle of the classroom was cleared out, with lots of room for movement, and plenty of time for freeze dance, catch with an assortment of squishy objects, and the game that put the biggest smile on his face with giggles to match, parachute.
My wife and I took turns running him under and crawling him out of the big colorful tarp, enjoying my son just being a kid, like everyone else, playing with his friends. When the time came for us to be interviewed, the now 5th grade students who had spent the last couple years getting to know our son now asked us what we felt as parents. The questions were honest and direct, and required us to really bare our souls for the camera, which although being willing to do, is never an easy thing for sure. I tearfully thanked both the founder and the cooperating teacher, as well as the kids, for what they had done for our family. I may have once fretted about how I was going to make it several times a year taking off work, to now wondering what we would do without our scheduled visits throughout the year. These young people, with their care and understanding for my son, gave him the most incredible gift of kindness, that of friendship, regardless of his ability or condition, and however much he could interact with them, he still did.
As I write this, we will be going to the celebration event for the culmination of his and the other special needs students two year experience next week, where we will be treated to a VIP welcome at the school he visited, and get to view the documentary created just for him. I plan on writing a second part to this piece where I will share about that night specifically, and I can only imagine how wonderful it will be for all involved. I could not, though, end this posting without referencing scripture, and I’ve thought long and hard about what would really fit here.
While there are many verses that are applicable to our experience as special needs parents, today I’m thinking about the wonderful kids who really made this project possible, and all of the valuable life lessons they’ve learned. Hopefully they won’t look back at this time in their lives as another nice thing done for a child with a disability, but rather a personal philosophy they will use to help shape their interactions with all those who are marginalized.
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