About six years ago, the Nelson family came over to our house for dinner. Holly and Eric Nelson have three children—Maggie, Mollie, and Sam. All three were adopted as infants, and all three have Down syndrome. I met them for the first time when they were teenagers, and when their family was about to embark upon a harrowing adventure of moving to Zambia to begin a ministry for children with intellectual disabilities. The Nelsons have now lived in Zambia for nearly five years, and in this season of hope, I asked them to share their story of their ministry, the Special Hope Network:
When did know you were called to minister to children with special needs? How did that calling take shape over the years?
Holly: I was first passionately and surprisingly drawn to children with disabilities when I was 17, and working at a shoe store. An adorable little girl with Down syndrome used to come in every few months to be fitted for shoes for her short, wide, and very cute feet. I always waited on her, and loved the time I had with her family. The following summer, I worked at a camp for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Following that summer I started college as a Special Education major. For the past 26 years, I have been a Special Education teacher, from preschool to 21 year olds.
Simultaneously, Eric decided the best way to deal with his fear of people with disabilities was to face it head on, so he took a summer job at a school for children with moderate to severe disabilities. When we were married, God saw fit to have us deal with infertility. At the same time we were having intense conversations about God’s peculiar delight and value of the weak and the vulnerable, we were daily caring for a child who had Down syndrome from my classroom, whose Mom was dying of uterine cancer. We realized through this God-ordained experience that kids with disabilities were kids first, and need love, playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, and all the things typical kids need. It wasn’t harder, just a bit more intense, and longer-lasting, as they develop at a slower rate.
The timing of this situation helped to determine the adoption of our twins from Brazil —Maggie and Mollie—who have Down syndrome and who needed heart surgery, when they were 14 months old. And then, soon after that, the adoption of our next child, Sam, who also needed heart surgery and had Down syndrome. This was in 1994-5.
What does Special Hope Network offer families?
Eric: Special Hope Network offers families, above all, a community that values their child. Parents relax in an environment where other people understand their worries, stresses, and joys. We offer top-notch education and therapies, and a food package at the end of the month for attendance with genuine interaction by a parent or guardian at every Community Care Center learning opportunity. Each child has a full assessment and Individualized Educational Plan (written to US standards, so far and away better than any child in Zambia is receiving outside of our services). We offer love and support when a child dies (once every 1-3 months we have a child die), through providing funeral food, the plot, transport, and the actual funeral sermon and singing if the family wants it.
Now that you’ve been on the ground in Zambia for a while, what have you learned? What has surprised you?
Holly: We have learned how culture shapes what people in general believe about people who have disabilities. In America, every public school, and many private schools offer classrooms, therapies and inclusive education. Hospital clinics address the specific health needs for children with special needs, and churches offer special programs for children and families of kids with intellectual disabilities.
In developing countries, such as Zambia, none of those options exist. Parents blame each other for the child with disabilities, Dad leaves, Mom and baby with disability now have no income and no chance for income, because Mom has to stay home with the baby. Add to that the cultural belief that a child with a disability is cursed (and I do mean true, witchcraft cursing), it will take a monumental effort to change cultural biases and beliefs.
What has surprised me is the one-in-a-hundred person who is kind, and responds with genuine care for our family or the children we serve. We have shop owners who support our ministry monthly. We have anonymous people pay for our lunch on the rare occasion we go out for a meal. We have business owners donate some of their goods to the families we care for. We have our mechanic who cares for our constantly breaking old trucks while Sam (our son) “helps” him. I could go on and on. These kindnesses do keep us going.
I’d love to hear some stories about kids and parents who you work with. Where have you seen God at work within kids and families lately?
Eric: I first met Joseph about two and a half years ago. Though 4 years old he was tiny and frail. He did not speak, could not sit on his own and his eyes seemed distant and vacant. Over the next several years, Joseph became a favorite among the staff and other mommies. He was constantly being passed around and greeting each new person with a face-consuming smile and with pleading eyes the request for his favorite song.
Six months ago Joseph died. His funeral was attended by all of our staff, almost all our mommies, and his large extended family. In typical Zambian fashion every one sat on the trampled down tall grass that made up these makeshift graveyards. I stood up and began to speak of the privilege it was to know Joseph. And then, unplanned, I began to sing his song (“Open, Shut Them”- a circle time children’s song with hand motions). As soon as I started our staff stood and joined in, by the second stanza all the mommies were on their feet singing. Finally Joseph’s Mom stood and finished the song. After that, she knelt down slowing clapping her hands in the Zambian form of respect, and said to me, “You gave me a son.”
What role do Maggie, Mollie and Sam play in the Special Hope Network? What ministry do your kids have?
Holly: Maggie, Mollie and Sam are more instrumental than words can even express. Every time I grocery shop, I take them with me, and almost every single time, someone comes up to me and says, “I have a child just like that one (pointing to one of them). What do you do?” and we have a chance to minister to them.
When I need to go into a compound where it would not be safe for me to go alone, I take one, or both of my very Zambian-looking, brown-skinned girls. Kids come over to ask about them, and families welcome us warmly into their tiny, dark homes for me to be able to serve them by giving them ideas about what they can do to stimulate their own child. I would be less likely to be invited into those compound homes without one of my girls. And when Maggie starts to help them do their dishes? Oh, that speaks words that could never be spoken. People here don’t believe that a child with a disability can do anything, let alone do a normal household task like the dishes.
And Mollie singing hymns at the top of her lungs at church causes many giggles and behind-the-hand grins as people are so surprised she actually SINGS… And Sam- He remembers everyone’s birthday and their favorite cake, and tells many women they are beautiful and he’d love to marry them. He could be a worldwide ambassador for teens with Down syndrome.