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One-on-One with Joel Dillon on Serving Families Raising Children with Disabilities

“Families raising children with intellectual disabilities are an unreached people group.”
One-on-One with Joel Dillon on Serving Families Raising Children with Disabilities
Image: Jill's House

Ed: What is Jill’s House?

Joel: Jill’s House is a Christian non-profit that loves and serves families raising children with intellectual disabilities. We do this through short-term, overnight respite care as well as holistic family support services.

Several times throughout the year, parents send their children with disabilities to our “respite resort” outside of Washington D.C. or to one of our camp locations around the country for 24-48 hour stays. The kids get an amazing experience in a safe, fun, loving, and celebratory environment.

Meanwhile, their parents get a break. They get to sleep through the night. They get to go on a date. They get to give undivided attention to their other children. Most families (mine included) take these things for granted, but for Jill’s House families, these are rare and precious gifts—they’re a lifeline.

We seek to love the whole family (mom, dad, kids with disabilities, and siblings). We do this in simple ways (gathering for a meal, book clubs, Bible studies, etc.) and in more “formal” ways (retreats for the whole family, retreats for single moms, retreats for dads, support groups, workshops for typical siblings, etc.).

At Jill’s House, all families are welcome. We serve Mormons and Muslims, Jews and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, black and white people, rich and poor people, straight people and gay people. As long as someone’s child has an intellectual disability and can safely stay at Jill’s House, they will be unconditionally welcomed, loved, and served.

Ed: Why does a ministry like this matter?

Joel: There’s a lot to say here, but I’ll limit it to three points:

First, rest isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. Indeed, God designed us to rest and commands us to rest. Rest is also—unsurprisingly—what these families say is most needed for their own health, and yet, it is almost impossible to find. We hear frequently from our parents that the first time they send their child to Jill’s House is the first time they’ve ever been away from their child with a disability. Jill’s House is often the only place they can/will turn to for the rest they need.

Second, the Body of Christ isn’t complete without people with disabilities and their families, yet the vast majority of these families are—through no fault of their own—outside the church. Being a part of a congregation is simply too difficult for most of them and far too frequently, they have been implicitly (and in some very sad cases, explicitly) told they aren’t welcome in church. I often say that families raising children with intellectual disabilities are an unreached people group.

Finally, Jill’s House—of course—is not a church, but we partner with local churches and point our families back to them. We are also one of the few groups of Christians who are proactively reaching out to these families and saying, “We want you. We want your family—exactly as it is—to be a part of our community.”

Our Jill’s House families often tell us that they are isolated and lonely, so we also seek to be a place where they can find relationships and community. One of our Jill’s House dads says it really well. He says that almost everywhere they go as a family, they have to figure out how to change themselves to fit the situation.

But Jill’s House is the one place that is tailor-made for them. He says they feel normal here. We hear similar sentiments from our families frequently: at Jill’s House, they are embraced because of who they are not in spite ofwho they are—and that makes a world of difference.

Ed: What is life like for families raising a child who has an intellectual disability?

Joel: Maybe the best way to answer this question is to hear how one of our Jill’s House dads recently described it:

Caring for a child with special needs can often make one feel unusually burdened, isolated, alone, afraid, worried, dark, hopeless, and mentally and physically exhausted. Pure exhaustion. In the mind of the caregiver, there seems to be no answer to this. This level of care, especially over a long period of time, takes a physical, psychological, and financial toll on the caregiver that is really just difficult to fully describe in words. However, it’s important to know that we look at Bennett not as a burden, but as a blessing directly from God – literally a piece of heaven to be treasured each day and moment that we have him. He can smile, and that smile has changed our lives. Bennett is our “little piece of heaven” as we like to say. In the eyes of Heaven, we know that Bennett is a child of God, precious, and perfect in His sight. His name, Bennett, means “Little Blessed One.”

Ed: How does being a Christian ministry fit into who you are?

Joel: Below is a brief piece of feedback from a Jill's House parent that is both heartbreaking and encouraging:

Jill's House is a lifesaver for us. I truly do not know how we would have survived the last few years without this respite for us and for our child. He thrives there and it is the one place other than home that we feel he is cherished and not just tolerated at best.

It was hard for me to read that this parent feels that "at best" their child is merely tolerated when they leave the home. As a parent myself, it is difficult to imagine experiencing that—and I am sure that many of our Jill's House parents experience that daily.

One of the hallmarks of Jill's House is that we don't see people with disabilities as inconveniences or obstacles, but we try to see them as God sees them: as people created fully in his image—not more or less than anyone else—who have been given tremendous gifts and are to be loved and celebrated just like anyone else.

God loves these kids and their families more abundantly than we ever could. It’s our duty and delight to reflect God’s love in word and deed to as many of them as possible.

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