Creating Connections: the Impact of Social Inclusion

Jenna Vander Laan, South Christian High alumni, shares how Connections impacted her high school experience and future career in this blog post. This article was featured in our new eBook, "Creating Connections: Social Inclusion for High Schools” by Ellie Van Keulen. 

Jenna Vander Laan A Lunch Partner since ninth grade, Jenna Vander Laan has been blessed by Connections throughout high school.

At South Christian High School we have a program called Connections for students with special needs connecting with other students. So what is Connections? According to a dictionary’s definition, “connections” are relationships with people, things, or ideas that are linked or associated with something else. You can see this definition being played out here, at South Christian. The Connections program includes special needs students as well as ordinary, average level students, including me.
Connections has helped me become more involved in the school on a deeper level.

I have been involved in Connections since freshman year and have loved every minute of it. At first, I was a lunch partner, which consisted of eating lunch with my partner, Phillip, and a couple of my friends. I began to develop a passion for special needs kids and became more involved in the Connections program by becoming a peer tutor. All I had to do was dedicate two study halls per week to helping a student in the program read, finish their homework, or learn a new concept. Now, as a senior, I am on Connections Council, which plans the events, such as the Banquet, and serve as a Connections team leader, making sure all lunch partners do their part in including their partner.

At South Christian, the teachers play a huge part in this inclusive education. Mr. Huttenga was talking about it one day in Psychology and he said that at first he was hesitant to integrate special needs students with general education students, but he is so thankful that he did. They have brought so much depth and perspective to his classes and took his teaching to the next level.
Because of the impact of Connections and how accepting all of the teachers at South Christian are towards these special needs students, I have decided to pursue teaching, specifically special education and elementary, as my career path.

From what I can tell, teaching is a win-win occupation. The students receive an education and the teachers are blessed with the joy of watching their students grow throughout the year. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to come back to where my passion for special education started, right here at South Christian High School.

Connections has been a huge, unexpected blessing in my high school life. Seeing my partner’s face light up when they finally understood a hard lesson, remembered how to say a vocabulary word that they could never remember, or play their favorite game once their homework was finished brought so much joy to my weeks.
I was supposed to be teaching them their school work but I think I took away more than they did.

My partners have taught me to love radically and passionately, putting myself wholeheartedly into everything I do. They’ve taught me to see people as they are and not to be quick to judgment. These individuals are so special in so many ways and I am so thankful to call them my peers, but not only that, my friends.

"Creating Connections: Social Inclusion for High Schools" eBookEducational Support Services teacher Ellie Van Keulen along with far-sighted students and parents started the Connections program at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) more than twenty years ago to include students with mild to significant needs. Connections now involves up to half of the student body and has become part of the school’s identity. Ellie shares their story, encouragement, and resources for teachers, administrators, and parents in this downloadable, 43-page eBook, available in our online store.