A few years ago, I had a precious five year old boy in my classroom with mitochondrial disease. It had affected nearly every organ in his small body. On a late November afternoon after a great day at school, he took a nap and never woke up. He died in his sleep from a grand mal seizure.
While his family and those of us at school coped with the shock and loss, a school psychologist was sent to help with grief counseling. She gathered the staff together to talk and one thing she said has stuck with me. She said that we were probably all asking the question, “why”. Not necessarily why he died, but why were children like this born into the world with disability and illness. Without hesitation, I blurted out, “I know why. He was here to teach us.” I have learned far more valuable lessons from my special friends than I have ever taught them. While I taught functional skills, communication, and academics, they taught me lessons about God. Lessons that I’m not sure I would have ever known if not for having close personal relationships with them.
So what did I learn and why do I believe that should you develop relationships with those who have special needs? Here are just a few reasons:
- You will learn compassion. I saw so many children and their families who struggled in ways I could never imagine. My students had dozens of surgical procedures, multiple hospital stays, countless hours of therapy. I saw them struggle to do simple tasks that I never think twice about doing.
- You will learn acceptance. My special friends didn’t judge others based on their appearance or differences. It didn’t matter if others around them were attractive or unattractive, dressed well or not, successful or failing. When I was tired or having a bad day, they just threw their arms around me and loved me unconditionally.
- You will learn patience. The least little things can take so long. Years were spent learning basic self help skills that a typical child will go through in a few weeks. When a child learned to take a bite of real food for the first time after years on a feeding tube or when a child uttered their first word at the age of seven years old, it was cause for quite a celebration!
- You will learn gratitude for your own blessings. While I am healthy and my children were born healthy, I know that our bodies are never more than an illness or accident away from becoming a person with special needs. I have learned to appreciate simple blessings like having eyes to see (one of my students did not) and being able to walk unassisted.
- You will learn service. Many people with special needs require help with the most basic tasks. Physical needs must be tended to. Sometimes those things are distasteful, but we are never more truly a servant than when we do things that others will not. We also have opportunity to perform those tasks with a smile and a kind word to those in our care.
- You will have the opportunity to see eternal innocence. Most with special needs maintain a child-like innocence throughout their lives. They are born sinless as we all are, but do not progress to the point of making sinful choices like I have.
- You will have an opportunity to see perfection in the sight of God. While we see imperfect bodies and minds from our earthly points of view, God sees the perfect soul in them. We are the imperfect ones in the eyes of God.
If you do not have special needs friends in your circle, let me encourage you to do so. I guarantee that you will never be more Christ-like than when you become as “one of the least of these my brethren”-Matthew 25:40.
Photo: The beautiful girl and her daddy are members of the church in Columbia, TN.