The Church needs to promote care and love to our friends in the disability community
One of our passions at ChurchPress is to share Jesus with all the world. We believe God has given us technology to help connect people across the globe and help solve problems that prevent people from getting connected.
We’re excited to have Crys Zinkiewicz guest blog for us today on an extremely important group of people — the disability community. Crys shares her experience volunteering at Saddle Up!, a learning center that serves children 2-18, and how our churches can learn to care for this vibrant community.
What I Learned at Saddle Up!
I’ve been volunteering at Saddle Up! for seven years. Saddle Up! is a PATH International Premier Accredited Center, serving annually more than 270 children, ages 2–18, who have disabilities. I came because I love horses. Frankly, because of my lack of experience, I was apprehensive about being with the children; but from the staff and volunteers, the children themselves, and even the horses I have learned what’s important about relating to those with special needs.
Here are my six key takeaways for how we can show love and care to this beautiful community:
Noticed. Most of us were taught and have taught our children not to stare or point at someone who is “different.” But the pendulum seems to have swung too far. We can’t stare, so in our discomfort we avoid looking at all. Too often those with special needs feel invisible. A basic human need is simply to be noticed, to be acknowledged as a real person. Jesus taught us that everyone is a beloved child of God and should be treated as such. Throughout Scripture you can sense Him being present in conversations, spending time with outcast, and simply paying attention to people who others ignored.
Welcomed. A smile, a word of greeting, calling the person by name—these simple acts of kindness go a long way toward creating the warmth that allows anyone to blossom. One of the lessons taught at Saddle Up! in the Equine Assisted Learning program helps the children read the body language of the horses. Are they relaxed or annoyed? Curious or confused? The instructor then works with the students to translate what they have learned from the horses to how the students can read the body language of people. Are they uncomfortable? Are they welcoming? As followers of Jesus, we often talk about being welcoming. But does our body language communicate this? Throughout Scripture you can see Jesus calling people by their name. Sometimes He even gives them a new name. This communicates love, care, and being welcomed into His arms.
Accepted. Over the 25 years of the program’s existence, Saddle Up! has dealt with more than 60 different disabilities. (Autism, anxiety disorder, blindness, chromosomal issues, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, epilepsy… you get the idea.) But the focus of Saddle Up! is not on the disabilities, but rather on the abilities. As lessons progress, instructors and volunteers consistently see children growing in their abilities to understand, to focus, to communicate, to feel comfortable and confident, to interact both with their horse and with people as they also increase their abilities to ride and to care for their horse. The disability does not define the participant. Staff and volunteers take their cues from the horses, which is completely nonjudgmental. For the horses “all children are equal in the saddle” just like the eyes of God. We are called to simply love God which compels us to love others. That does not mean to ignore or discount any disability, but it does shift the emphasis to honoring the abilities—the gifts each child has—and to show them love no matter how different they seem compared to us.
Encouraged. In addition to the certified instructor, every therapeutic riding participant at Saddle Up! has at least one volunteer. The safety of the child is the foremost responsibility of the adults, but piggy-backing tightly on that is encouraging the child. Encouragement may mean adjusting a game to the range of possibility, or taking care to make sure the instructions are understood, or placing a hand appropriately to assure the child, or showering confidence builders—“You can do it!” “Try again; you almost had it!” “Yeah! You did it!” The Bible teaches us to care for and build up one another and to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). In the faith community, we experience encouragement. And once again this is why our friends in the disability community need to be and feel encouraged.
Empowered. One of my favorite Saddle Up! stories is the Bucket List. Several of the teens have been riding long enough and well enough to participate in Saddle Up!’s Equestrian Club, where they can ride with much more independence. Throughout the year, instructors consistently encourage the members to make choices and to do things for themselves and for the team. During one summer week of Equestrian Club one of the girls brought up the idea of having a “bucket list.” Each one would identify something they wanted to accomplish by the end of the week. The instructors and volunteers let the club members take the lead. The finale was not just being able to ride bareback, canter, or create and ride a dressage pattern to music (their individual goals), it was also a new sense of their own power, their own ability! The church is a beautiful example of how we care for one another. Sometimes that means doing for, and sometimes that means stepping to the background and empowering someone else do what they can!
As people of faith, we have been blessed ourselves with these values. And with our growing awareness, we can put them into practice with our brothers and sisters with special needs. Make sure your church spends some intentional time thinking through how to partner with and impact the disability community. They need to hear, see, feel, touch and experience God’s word just like you do.