“We despise ourselves.” The room responded with grunts of assent and head nods. I sat at the front in awe of the vulnerability in that statement. Parents of children with special needs were asked to discuss the emotions they had when they consider their child’s disability. Each table shared one or two that everyone in the group had in common. The second to share was brave enough to offer this unfiltered answer and it was the answer all of the other tables agreed with most vigorously. As heavy as it is to say you despise yourself, the realization that others feel the same seemed to lift a weight from the room. I was honored to be in the room where a mother felt comfortable enough to share this and saw that while I have been focused on my patients’ needs in the clinic, I have missed too many opportunities to meet the parents with compassion and support as they struggle to find meaning in their children’s suffering and too often accept the lie that they are the cause.
Over the past 2 years I have been feeling a burden for more intentional ministry to the parents of my patients. As I have seen many marriages break apart after the diagnosis of a disability, watched families fight to find the best care for their children in a place where resources are hard to come by and held too many mamas as they wept for the difficulties their children would face, I have been looking for ways to meet their spiritual, emotional and, social needs. When I heard the idea for a Sports Friends camp for children with special needs, I invited myself to help out. Twenty-seven parents and 22 campers joined us for a 3 day camp in Nakuru, Kenya. Those days were the highlight of 4 years of ministry in Kenya.
When they asked me to plan for the parent group, I knew I wanted to go through the Healing the Wounds of Trauma curriculum. Families of children with disabilities often experience grief and trauma related to the child’s diagnosis, hospitalizations, treatments, financial demands, marital/family stress, lack of support/resources, isolation…the list is long. They rarely have space to process this trauma because of the ongoing needs of their child. [To be clear, I am not only describing families in Kenya – this stress is present in all countries and cultures. It just looks a little different depending on the place.] I wanted camp to offer space and time for these parents to rest and develop community with other people who knew exactly what they were going through. That is what we prayed for weeks before camp and the Lord answered more abundantly than we could have thought to ask.
We spent 3 days talking about suffering, grief and healing. We talked about how their children are made in God’s image and for His glory. We encouraged them to keep fighting for their children even though they are weary and feel alone too often. These are deep and heavy subjects and most of the parents did not know each other, so I was unsure of how well conversations would go since I was asking them to speak about something so personal and painful. What we found was that giving the freedom to share in a place where everyone in the room understands the struggle lead to wonderful discussions and the fast formation of friendships between parents. It was remarkable to sit back and watch as groups gathered around the scriptures together to see what the Bible had to say to them about their own suffering and who God is in the midst of it.
We haven’t finished with the Trauma Healing book yet. I wanted to start slowly and give this group plenty of time to let the scripture and truth we talk about soak in. From the beginning, we had hoped the parents would want to continue working through this curriculum and before we had a chance to tell them that was our plan, one mama stood up to say she hoped they would continue meeting regularly. Then she made a suggestion that will seem very commonplace to most people reading this, but it’s pretty incredible – she said she wanted to have birthday parties for their children together. The reason this is remarkable is that it is not common for birthdays to be a big deal here. A 6-year-old turning 7 in 3 months telling you what kind of party he is having….not a thing in Kenya. Families might have small celebrations, but on the whole, it is not common to have big to-dos for birthdays. Add in the fact that there are still cultural difficulties surrounding children with disabilities and this suggestion was the most beautiful sentence I heard all week. I was overjoyed that one of the takeaways was that their children are gifts worth celebrating.
On July 22, we will pick up where we left off. We have to start a new parent group because 14 spouses who did not come to camp will be joining us and we want them to have the chance to work through the same sessions as the first group. And I am planning to bake a cake for our first birthday celebration.
I have a feeling that this will not be the end of the road for groups like this in Kenya. I am praying for local churches to pick up the mantel of hospitality and support for families like the 23 represented in this group. I am praying for champions and advocates for these families who can help shine a spotlight on their beauty and essential role in the body of Christ. Would you join me in that prayer?