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Happier Holidays with the Right Supports: 7 Simple Ways Churches Can Partner with Families Affected by Disability

“Happy Thanksgiving!” I said to the mom as she headed out the door. “Not likely,” she replied, “Everyone tells me that, but the holidays are some of the hardest days. The schedule differs daily—we will pay the price for that in our family.”  

Those words from a parent reminded me that there are families in our congregations with a family member with a disability who craves predictability and schedules. While Christmas may be “merry” for some, for others, it’s marked with stress and anxiety over changing school and work schedules and the large outdoor tree in the living room. As a congregation, one of the best Christmas gifts you can offer a parent or caregiver is a listening ear followed by a very specific offer of support.  

As a congregation, ask the parent or caregiver, “What is Christmas break like for Joey? What goes well, and what parts are difficult?” Listen as they tell you about the holiday prediction. As an individual or congregation, can you step in around those difficult areas? Is there a way to join in the celebration?  

If you’re looking to come alongside individuals and families impacted by disability this Christmas season, I offer you the below seven ideas as a starting point: 

1. Bake treats.

“It seems you need more time to focus on Joey, so don’t worry about holiday baking. We are dropping off eight dozen cookies and four pies with a variety that is sure to please every family member.” 

2. Provide respite for parents.

“Your daughter Carmen and I often enjoy being together at church during Sunday school. I’d like to come over some day and be with Carmen from 9 AM – 2 PM so that you can do what you need with shopping, wrapping gifts, or just meeting someone for lunch. Monday or Tuesday next week work for me. Which day is best for you?”

“Dameon is so comfortable in our room at church, playing with the toys and dancing to the music. I have asked the church to allow Becca and me to open that room on Friday from 10 AM – 3 PM so that you can drop off Dameon in a place where he is comfortable and with people who adore being with him. This would give you time to shop, play, grab coffee with a friend, ice skate, or just rest.” 

3. Provide respite for siblings.

“We are heading off to the movies and out for dinner afterward. We would love to pick up Mya’s siblings and take them with us for a special treat so that you can have the time you need to keep Mya more stable and calm while also giving the other kids a special day. Would Friday work for that?

4. Pay for additional respite.

“You have a respite provider from Community Mental Health, but I know you are only allowed six hours per week. As a church, we would like to purchase thirty additional hours for the two weeks of Christmas break. Can you see if your current provider can cover the extra time? Otherwise, we will gladly pay a different person of your choice so that you can have some free time.

5. Celebrate an individual’s gifts.

“We know how much Chad loves to sing. You mentioned his Christmas choir concert on Tuesday night. There are two of us from church who would love to come and take joy in that area of gifting for Chad. Would the school allow that?

6. Offer the gift of time.

“Adam does love nature hikes! Our family does, too. Could Adam join us for a hike on Wednesday next week? That will give you some time with Audra and Ally and time for our family to be with Adam doing something we all enjoy.”

7. Give thoughtfully.

“We filled ten small stockings with activities we know Jason will love. He can open one every day as a treat. Feel free to use them as a reward for good behavior or to spend some free time with activities he enjoys.”  

I hope this list gives you some ideas as you listen and find ways to “step in” to share God’s love this Christmas season. Tag – you’re it!  

Barb Newman 2 April 2011
Barbara J. Newman
Church and School Consultant

Barbara J. Newman (1962-2020) was the Director of Church Services at All Belong. For over 30 years, she endeavored to create communities of inclusion through All Belong. Co-administrating the inclusion program at Zeeland Christian School allowed her to stay on top of best practices which she shared at schools and churches nationwide and in her books and practical resources, including Autism and Your Church, Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, the Inclusion Awareness Kit, Nuts & Bolts of Inclusive Education, and her latest title, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship.