“Mommy! Guess what?” my first grader said excitedly at the beginning of the school year.
“What, honey?” I asked.
“There are two special needs students in my class this year. Can you believe it? We are so lucky,” she said and ran off to play.
I wasn’t really surprised by her enthusiasm, but it touched me just the same. Her life has been shaped by the impact special needs kids have had on her siblings and our family. Her older brother received a Community Award in the third grade for serving Paul, a boy with learning disabilities. He shrugged off the award because he didn’t do anything to deserve it. “Paul is my friend, Mom.”
When her older sister was in the sixth grade, we attended the end of the year Awards program and the school gave several special needs kids trophies for their hard work. I wept in the middle of the row as I watched my daughter’s friend with Down’s Syndrome jump up and down and wave her trophy wildly in the air and do a victory march.
And then I’ll never forget watching my children serve a meal at a children’s home in Africa that housed some of Kenya’s most vulnerable handicapped children. I thought they might be afraid of the loud noises, the smells, and seeing mentally ill crippled children walk on their knees. But they boldly loved on these beautiful people and I they taught me so much about Jesus that day.
We proudly wear our “This is How We Roll” shirts to advocate for our good friends whose son is wheel-chair bound. My kids love books like I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice and are learning to see special needs students as more like them, than different. And when the high school in our town voted in the Homecoming Queen a few weeks ago, the newly crowned student wheeled her chair onto the court, we all smiled at each other. It made us proud to be a part of a school that values everyone.
I have great kids. While they are 100% normal (and by that I mean, they stuff dirty clothes under their beds and leave empty toilet paper rolls regularly and spent an hour yesterday pulling weeds because they needed an opportunity to get along. ahem), they also understand that life is really about loving others.
Here are 4 powerful things special needs kids have taught my children:
- Don’t Give Up When It’s Hard: Day in and day out, my children work alongside children in wheelchairs, with safety helmets, cochlear implants, autism, behavioral issues and who are non-verbal. I love that kids with these struggles are integrated into every classroom. My kids watch them tenaciously struggle and achieve what comes easy for others. They are inspired by these children who refuse to give up.
- Compassion Makes You a Better Person: It really comes down to love for others. It’s a God-given emotion to want to come alongside someone who is facing a challenge. Every special needs child we have know, loves without limits and are compassionate.
- Gratitude: My kids have learned to be thankful. They see their friends achieve great feats and are proud of them. It’s also hard not to be thankful for health and perspective when they realize their struggles are different. They watch their teachers come along side and cheer on kids and it spurs gratitude.
- It’s Ok to be Different: I’ve written before how my kids sometimes feel different in our culture because of some of the choices we’ve made. Special needs kids have taught them how to celebrate being unique. Different is good.
Last week at my first grader’s parent-teacher conference, I got an update on my daughter’s reading level and looked through her test scores and worksheets. But when her teacher said, “Your daughter is kind to everyone, especially our special needs learners who are non-verbal. She always makes sure they have a partner and are included in the class activities.”
I felt like I’d won the lottery.
Because nothing-not straight A’s or clean bedrooms-makes me more proud than the way my kids have allowed special needs children into their lives and impacted them to be better people. It’s not just about rooting for the underdog, it’s about seeing our special friends as they are–strong and beautiful and a gift in our lives.