We all do it: Hear a story on the radio or see one on TV or the internet about a child with special needs facing a difficult circumstance, think about how terrible or sad the details are and wish there were something we could do, then dismiss the story and go on about our lives. We show just enough compassion to wish something were different, but either because we’re busy or because we don’t know what to do, we ignore the situation in favor of tackling our own life responsibilities and problems.
I get it. I do it, too. But as a mother of a child with special needs and a teacher to many children in health and financial crisis, I’m here to entreat you to take it to the next step and actually do something. Believe it or not, there are a myriad of things you can do to help these children and their families — things ranging from easy, low cost, and minimally time consuming to slightly more involved. If you truly wish to make a difference, take a look at the possibilities for action below. You do have the power to make a positive impact on lives.
Donate to a reliable cause. Even if it’s just $5, your contribution can help improve or even save lives. Be careful about the organizations to which you donate, though. Unfortunately, not all are reputable and honest. To see a list of well-vetted charities in need (and ones to avoid), click here. Keep in mind, however, that not all charities are represented on charity evaluation sites, and just because they aren’t doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile. CHASA, for example, does not appear on top charity sites, yet it is a charity near and dear to our hearts because of its work with pediatric stroke survivors. Use charity evaluation sites as a starting point, and be sure to do your own homework as well.
Encourage local businesses to hire people with special needs, and thank the ones that already do. Meijer, a local grocery store chain in my neck of the woods, makes it a point to hire people with special needs as baggers, greeters, and stockers, and this does not go unnoticed to those of us whose loved ones have special needs. A simple phone call, email, or letter to businesses asking them to consider employing people with special needs or thanking them for doing so can go a long way in ensuring this traditionally overlooked population has access to jobs and decent pay.
Volunteer to work with children with special needs. Church groups, therapy centers, and local schools are always looking for volunteers willing to work with children who have special needs, whether that work involves helping out with after-school enrichment activities or sponsoring a sports team. Sometimes the gift of our time is all it takes to move mountains.
Include children with special needs in play dates and birthday parties and encourage your children to attend theirs. You’ve all heard the story of Colin, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome whose mother created a Facebook page for him after he lamented that no one would come to his birthday party if his mother threw one for him, right? Chances are, your child goes to school with one or more children like Colin who are struggling with fitting in. Simply extending invitations to come over for a movie on a Saturday afternoon or joining in on a birthday celebration at the local park can make a valuable difference in a child with special needs’ sense of worth and self-esteem.
Talk with your children about difference. It’s not productive to encourage your children to ignore differences in race, gender, religious views, socioeconomic status, or ability. Instead, offer a safe haven for discussing your child’s questions about others who appear different, and embolden him or her to embrace diversity. Children (like adults) often fear what they don’t know. Understanding breeds friendship and community.
Reach out to a family whose child has special needs. Dealing with a loved one who has special needs can be lonely. Often, we feel as though our lives consist of one therapy or doctor appointment after another with little time for anything else in between. Inviting them over for dinner, offering to babysit, organizing a trip to the zoo, or otherwise extending an “I see you and am here for you” can make their hectic lifestyle a bit more bearable.
Host story time at the local library. Work something out with the library whereby you encourage children with special needs (and those without) to bring their favorite books for story hour and introduce some new reading favorites of your own. This not only provides essential literacy immersion to children who may otherwise lack it at home, but it also builds community across ability and socioeconomic barriers.
Spread cheer at the local hospital. Disease and accident do not discriminate based on age, and unfortunately, children as young as hours old are battling life threatening conditions like cancer and brain injury. Take time to visit the pediatric wing in goofy attire or distribute sticker sheets and coloring books to kids confined to their hospital rooms (with hospital clearance, of course). The dollar store has a wealth of trinkets for your own costume or to distribute as pick-me-ups.
Organize a local and/or virtual 5K benefiting your favorite children’s cause. People love to walk and run for themselves, and they’re even more eager to do so when it helps those in need. Whether your race will benefit a national organization or a local program, you can bet the publicity alone will have positive results for your benefactors. For tips on how to host your own 5K, click here.
Participate in awareness campaigns. No matter the month, there seem to be countless organizations campaigning for attention and financial aid to assist people in need. Identify a children’s cause close to your own heart, and help raise awareness through something as simple as wearing awareness colors and ribbons all month long or as involved as organizing a local food drive or clothing swap. No amount of participation, however big or small, goes unnoticed.
Petition local agencies and your governor to support special needs programs in your area. Many children receive life altering care through early intervention programs like Early On (a Michigan program) and Head Start (a federal program). These programs offer therapy and educational services to children in need early enough to make a lifelong difference in physical and cognitive function. Unfortunately, programs like these and those on a local level are in constant danger of financial cuts (or are suffering them right now), making providing services to children in need difficult or impossible. Demanding action on the part of our leaders and spreading awareness about the benefits of these programs can help ensure they remain intact now and in the future.
The possibilities for having a positive impact on the lives of children with special needs are numerous. Please consider donating your time or money to worthwhile causes, and contribute to a community which embraces, understands, and advocates for those with special needs.
What other ideas for helping children with special needs do you have?