The New School Year Can Be Terrifying by Ellen Stumbo

It’s that time of the year when kids go back to school. A new year. A new teacher. Perhaps even a new backpack or wardrobe. But it also means new classmates. New friends.

As a special-needs mom, the new school year can be terrifying. I am not sure what your experience was, but when I was in school, the children with disabilities were not in class with me. They either had their own class or their own school.

Back then, I was afraid of disability. I was told to look away, to ignore, to not ask questions, to not be rude. So I thought disability was bad. Really bad. Then I became a special-needs mom and let me tell you, this is how you take a crash course on disability.

But I remember being on the “other” side, the side where you are not so sure how to respond to people with disabilities, how to act around them, perhaps even how to treat them or talk to them. And you know, your child might be going to school with a peer with who has a disability. Thankfully, we now practice something beautiful called inclusion, where kids of all abilities learn together, and learn from each other.

And this is why a new year is terrifying. Will my daughter with Down syndrome have friends? Will there be a kid in their class that will be able to look past the poor speech and see the wonderful, beautiful, funny person that she is? Will my daughter with cerebral palsy have friends that play with her during recess? Will they still include her even if she cannot run and keep up with them?

I want my children to have friends.

So dear mom with typical kids, it’s okay if you have not taken the crash course on disability (or any course at all). The only thing that matters is that you encourage your kids to get to know my kids. That you teach them that although they might be different, we are all uniquely gifted. That you stress out that disability is just a part of life, and not what defines a person.

And you know what, as your kids get to know mine, maybe we can get to know each other too. I might also need a friend.

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com.

When Adopted Kids Need Therapy by Ellen Stumbo

“Just pray for her, and God will restore her heart.”

I have a confession. When we adopted our daughter from Ukraine, we believed her cerebral palsy would be our biggest challenge. Sure, we knew she would have some emotional difficulties due to spending the first four years of her life in an orphanage, but we believed in a fairy tale. You know, where God wipes away the bad memories and a loving home is all she needed to heal from those deep emotional and psychological scars. I believed in a Christian cliché.

Christian clichés bother me. Life is messy. We all carry scars from our past, every single one of us. Whether it is a message from our childhood, a broken relationship, or someone who hurt us deeply. None of us get through life untouched in this fallen world.

Yes, God is in the business of restoring hearts, offering peace, and extending comfort. But in this life there is no delete button. A reminder of why we so desperately need God to do life with us. Sometimes we only get through because of His grace.

The details of my daughter’s past will never change, neither will the pain and loss surrounding them, but I do pray and hope that as she grows up, she will see that God was with her in the midst of the pain, and He is the one that led us to her.

So every week my daughter and I go to therapy to address not her obvious physical disability but the emotional disability created as a result of trauma, abandonment, rejection, pain, and the abuse she experienced as an orphan. A disability far more debilitating and impactful than her cerebral palsy ever will be.

And I am so thankful for how God uses her therapist — how she teaches my daughter more about how to control her emotions, to regulate her big feelings, and even to trust us, her parents.

Adoption is not a fairy tale. It is heartbreaking. It is messy. And it is absolutely worth it, because watching your child grow and make sense of their life is far greater than an imagined happily ever after.

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com.

Acceptance Defies Stereotypes by Ellen Stumbo

I love the energy that kids have after school: running, smiling, hugs to parents, stories of the great adventures that took place at recess. They squeeze in every minute of fun with friends before going home.

One afternoon, two little boys from my daughter’s class posed for a photo as they hugged side by side. When my daughter noticed the camera, she wanted to join in. I was about to tell her that the photo was only for the boys, but one of the little boys noticed her and said, “Come on, Nichole!” He waved at her to join in and then put his arm around her too. Soon, a few more kids joined in the photo.

It might seem like a regular happening, just a group of kindergarteners getting their picture taken with their friends … and it was! But it was also more than that. My daughter has Down syndrome, and this everyday happening reminded me that disability is inconsequential to friendship. Some people say that little kids don’t notice differences, which is why they accept everyone. I don’t think that is true. I do believe that little kids do a much better job at accepting everyone, but I also know they notice differences, they just don’t care about those differences the way adults do. They have not been touched by cultural expectations or norms. The beauty in that moment was the fact that she was one of the kids. She was included, invited to join in. She was one of the kids, and nobody cared if her speech is hard to understand or if she is delayed in some other ways. They just knew she was part of the group.

Those kids in that little group of friends were defying a stereotype, all of them. And I was so proud of them!

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com.

Keep on Swinging by Ellen Stumbo

Photo: Generationbass.com

Photo: Generationbass.com

When my husband was a little boy, he boxed his dad on the living room floor. His siblings and mom gathered around and watched as the skinny little boy with the red boxing gloves took on “El Luchador.” My father-in-law stood tall on his knees, and with exaggerated moves, he ducked the punches or swung back like an inflatable punching bag.

After swinging those punches hard, my husband would stand there, panting, red boxing gloves resting at the sides of his body. Then, when my father-in-law least expected it, Andy would start swinging the punches again, eventually conquering “El Luchador.”

On our wedding day, as my father-in-law performed our ceremony, he told us about the little boy who wouldn’t give up and kept on swinging, and he said, “Many things will come into your marriage and try to tear you apart, but don’t give up. Just keep swinging, never at each other, but at whatever is trying to bring you down.”

And I’ve never forgotten that analogy.

Recently, we’ve been battling mental health issues with my middle daughter, who we adopted from Ukraine four years ago. She has cerebral palsy, and she is getting to an age where she is aware of her disability, and she doesn’t like it. But more than her obvious disability, the damage, pain, and hurt that she endured the first four years of her life living in an orphanage have really started to show in the way of behaviors, fears, anxiety, depression. She has attachment issues, and she has post traumatic stress. Parenting her  is the hardest and most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do.

The truth is, often times I don’t know what to do, except for one thing: to keep swinging. In the safety of our marriage, our children can find peace and comfort, so we swing at the challenges that threaten to crush our daughter, and we keep swinging. Because she’s worth it, and because that’s what parents do, we keep swinging on behalf of our kids.

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com.

Love them well, love them fierce by Ellen Stumbo

If you are a parent, perhaps you’ve wrestled with this thought at one point or another, “Am I doing enough for my kid?”

Those thoughts tend to creep into our minds, especially if our kids are struggling. Whether it be related to academic performance, their friendships (or lack of friendships), even their behaviors at home. “Is there something I could do to make things better for my child?”

Ask any special needs parent, and you might discover they wrestle with these thoughts often. Disability can be a daily struggle for our kids, and as their parents, we try to do whatever we can to help our kids. Maybe the solution is the new physical therapy approach that is helping many children with cerebral palsy, or the new speech program that is breaking through and getting non-verbal kids to talk! There is always something more we could be doing.

But we have more in common than you think, because we are parents, and because we want the best for our kids, regardless of their abilities.

So I say to you today, my fellow parent of typical children or children with special needs. Just love your kids, love them well, love them fierce.

There might be more than you and I can do, but what our kids need to most is our unconditional love. They need to know that we got their backs, that if they fall we’ll be there to catch them. If they struggle, we will gather around them and cheer them on. If they mess up, we’ll teach them the right way to follow. And they need to know we are their biggest and most devoted cheerleaders.

Every new day is an opportunity to show them that love, to build their character, to point their hearts and minds to a God that loves them far better than we can.

So let’s love our kids, love them well, and love them fierce!

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com

Special Needs Families Can Celebrate the Season Too by Ellen Stumbo

For many parents of children with special needs, the Holidays can be quite challenging. The delightful Christmas gatherings and parties can quickly turn into sensory overload and meltdowns for the kids.

There are many special needs families that prefer to stay home rather than dealing with the stress of the festivities. But at home, they wish they could participate a little bit more in the Christmas cheer.

If you know a family that has a child with special needs, reach out to them in the next few days. Invite them over to your house, and ask if them if there is anything you can do to make your time together enjoyable. Believe me, special needs parents are hungry for friendship, and they are waiting for someone to reach out to them.

If you are a special needs family, know that I understand the challenges. I have two daughters with special needs, and one of them has a significant sensory processing disorder. But I want to speak to you, because sometimes we cannot wait for someone to reach out to us. Sometimes, we need to initiate.

Instead of waiting for an invitation, host a gathering and invite a family or two you are close to, or families you would like to get to know better. Tell them in advance about your kids, and ask them to bring something to share! The beauty of Christmas festivities is that many are willing to contribute a dish to a gathering.

Prepare your children! My husband is a pastor, and we recently hosted a Christmas open house at our house. Yes, it was a lot of work. And yes, we took a risk with our daughter, but we had a plan. She knew she could go to her room to be alone, bring the iPad, and watch a show. She didn’t need to go to her room, but she did sit on her own in the kitchen while everyone gathered in the living room.

Special needs parents often feel isolated. I encourage you this season to reach out. Reach out to just one other family, or friend. It might take some work, but it will be worth it!

Ellen Stumbo Head ShotEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor. Visit her at ellenstumbo.com

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month by Ellen Stumbo

down syndrome awareness
October is Down syndrome Awareness month. Six years ago, I was aware that there was something called Down syndrome. Our close friends had a daughter with Down syndrome and I took care of her while her mom worked a part-time job. But two years later, when my daughter was born with Down syndrome, my awareness changed.

I was aware I did not want to have a baby with Down syndrome. I was aware of my broken dreams for our future. Aware that I had become a special needs mom without any say in the matter. I was aware that God had a plan, but I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

So I cried and shook my fist at God because I didn’t think I deserved a baby with Down syndrome. I lived my life to serve God, I was a pastor’s wife, why was He doing this to me? Why did He choose a broken baby for me? I wanted my baby to die because I couldn’t handle her diagnosis.

Then I got a call from my baby’s doctor, he was concerned about her health. A possibly terminal liver condition. Maybe she would die if we didn’t do something about it. And my awareness changed once more.

I became aware of how selfish I was. Aware of how little I knew about unconditional love, and how consumed I was with my grief. I became quite aware that my baby wasn’t broken. I was. So broken.

And then I chose love. With everything in me I was going to love my baby because I couldn’t bear the idea of standing before God without loving His child, the beloved He had entrusted to me. I had a change of heart. God was beginning to mend my brokenness.

Now, six years later, I am aware of how beautiful my daughter’s life is. I am aware that she brings me more joy and love I thought I could have in my life. I am aware of shades of color I never knew were possible. I am aware that there is love, oh so much love.

And I am aware that she is the little girl I always wanted. My pride. My joy. My heart.

To read more about this story, stop by HERE.

ellenstumboEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor.

Something About Apples by Ellen Stumbo

stumbopic
My daughter had a rough time at the beginning of the school year. On the first day of school, once we were in the car ready to come home, she broke down and sobbed. “It was the worse day ever!” She said.
Sometimes, it’s not easy being a kid with a disability. My daughter has a new class this year, and her classmates are naturally curious about why she has a wheelchair, why she uses a walker, why she has braces on her legs, and why she walks different.

It’s not easy to be a first grader that has to answer such personal questions about the things that make you different from everyone else. We have rehearsed how to answer those questions, but they came at her often and unexpectedly, crumbling her courage to speak up.

Kids are learning, growing, it is natural for them to wonder why someone is different, and why they might need special equipment to do the very things that come so naturally to them – like walking. So my husband and I visited the first grade class.

We brought apples, because there is something about apples. Apples can be green, red, or speckled; they look different but they are still apples. You can eat an apple, or an apple pie, or apple sauce. You can drink apple juice, or apple cider, or even apple soda. And it goes without saying that you can eat apple pie, but you cannot drink it. And you can drink apple soda, but not eat it.

We are like apples. We might look different on the outside, but we are more alike than different, we are still people, we have the same essence. And we all have different abilities. While my daughter might not be able to walk well, she is very creative, which makes her a great artist.

Yes, we are like apples. We all look a little different on that outside. We all have different gifts and talents. We are all perfectly unique.

ellenstumboEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor.

Embrace Children With Differences

Here are a few tips foreEmbracing a child with a physical difference and her family during everyday life.

1. Invite the child on play dates.
Don’t be concerned about how other children may respond to the child’s physical difference. When children see adults treat a child with a difference just like any other child, they, too, will quickly look past the physical difference and focus on the child herself.

2. Visit the child at the hospital.
If the child must have surgery, make a point to visit the child and her family at the hospital. A smiling, familiar face can bring such a sense of calmness and ease during these stressful times. This is also a wonderful opportunity to teach your own children about caring for others.

3. Let the child’s family decide her limitations.
Even if the outing is at a bounce house, playground, or skating rink, don’t be timid asking a child with a physical difference to attend. Allow her parents to decide whether or not she can handle the outing. You’ll be simply amazed at what these children can do!

Special Needs Parents Need Friends by Ellen Stumbo

Did you know that many parents of kids with special needs feel lonely?

Because of their children’s needs, some special needs parents feel isolated. That birthday party everyone is invited to? Maybe the child has significant sensory processing issues and cannot handle the noise or large crowds. That Bible study at church that takes place during the children’s  program? The special needs mom needs to stay with her child because there isn’t a trained volunteer to help with her child’s needs. That playdate at the park where the moms chatter while the kids play?  Not gonna’ happen! Most likely the child needs help to climb on the special equipment, and there goes the adult interaction.

Parenting a child with special needs can be exhausting. Sometimes, it is easier to stay home. The thing is, special needs parents need friends. They need someone to talk to and someone to laugh with. God created us to be in relationships, we are not meant to do life alone.

What can you do to reach out to a special needs parent?

First, get to know her family and her child with special needs. Can you babysit for an hour or two so mom and dad can go out on a date? Maybe a late-night-date after the kids go to bed?

Initiate the relationship. You can ask, “I would love to get together with you, is there a time or day that works for you?”

Plan playdates around the abilities of the kids with special needs. Maybe a playdate at a park won’t work, but the special needs parent might have some suggestions for fun activities that work for her family.

Call. Just pick up the phone and call. It is amazing how something so simple makes such a big difference. Let your friend know that you are available to talk. And you don’t have to talk about special needs! Just chat about the weather, about the conversation you had with your brother, or about the embarrassing situation you had at the store. Just be a friend and reach out.

ellenstumboEllen Stumbo is a writer and speaker. She is the mother of three daughters: Ellie; Nichole, who has Down syndrome; and Nina, who was adopted and also has special needs. She is wife to Andy, a pastor.