I've spent four of my five days back in America at the Attema family's home. I flew home Wednesday night, and Thursday morning headed back to the airport to spend a week in Michigan with my intern girl sisters. SharaLee generously invited us all to crash at her house and spend time with her family and in her city. I've loved nearly everything about Michigan, including the Dutch food, farmer's markets, and freshwater lakes. But by far the part I'll remember most is this incredible and inspiring family.
The Attema family has been through more than most of us have ever experienced. Jason, now 12, was born with Down's Syndrome, but that didn't stop them from reaching out to adopt Alyona from Russia a few years later. Two years ago this month, Ryan (16) was in a swimming accident that left him in and out of the hospital and now struggling with paralysis. Mr. Attema also dealt with cancer recently, and in the midst of all of this, I have been amazed by this family's unity, support, and continual outreach to others.
We all know that sometimes our own families can be the hardest to love on a day to day basis. And obviously, I'm sure this family has bad days. But this week, I've seen God in these people, and I mean that completely. Most of us know that working with special needs kids can definitely be difficult. Jason is incredibly sweet and loving, but sometimes he's hard to understand or persuade. Watching how each member of this family engages with him in patience and understanding is a parallel of how God often loves us. I guarantee you that sometimes we don't make sense either, but God knows just how valuable we are and treats us like that no matter what. I hope that we respond as well to God's love as Jason does to his family! The bond between them all is so unique and special.
Ryan has amazed me this week too. For someone who can only move his head and arms, he has unbelievably stamina and determination. Someone going through this experience could so easily clam up into a gloomy, self-depreciating existence. And honestly, I didn't know what to expect when I first got here. I guess I expected to see him just sitting in his wheelchair, maybe reading a book. But this first time I saw him this week, he was on stage at a Vacation Bible School in front of 700 kids leading them in energetic praise songs with the music team. He's using the abilities he does have, and I know that he's inspiring others too, disabled or not. I know that I'm one of them.
SharaLee is one of the most powerfully loving people I know. I believed that before this week, but I've been far more convinced of it by these last few days of living life with her. I haven't heard her say "no" to anyone's request yet. Whether it's doing her mom and sister's hair before her own when she's in a hurry, or whether it's letting Jason jump on her back even though he's just as big as she is, she has a servant's heart like few people I've met. Even after getting all of us to church, making errands, taking us touring all day, or organizing a whole tea party, she'll still be the one to jump on making dinner for her family or cleaning the kitchen from the last meal.
But it doesn't end with her family, or with TeenPact students. SharaLee has an amazing gift for working with special needs individuals. She's told us for years about the summer camp she participates in every year that specifically provides disabled girls and boys with a week of camp and a personal mentor/friend. Today, I got to meet one of the girls I've heard about and seen pictures of on SharaLee's bedroom wall. This morning, we drove over to her friend's house to pick her up for church. She's in a wheelchair and doesn't have much control over her body at all, though she's mentally sharp. From the moment we arrived, SharaLee poured all her attention directly onto this girl. The trust built between them was obvious as SharaLee rolled her up to the car, embraced her, and lifted her completely into the van's front seat. As she buckled her in and got her comfortable, they talked and chatted about life and friends. I was struck by how much SharaLee knew and remembered about her friend's life, a true sign of commitment in a friendship. For a girl whose life has been so much harder than most people and whose self-worth can be incredibly hard to keep, I know for certain that SharaLee has been a life-changer because of her genuine love.
I want to be more like SharaLee because I want to:
- say "yes" often
- see the inside and outside of a person and not judge either
- love when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable
- be committed and loyal
- strive for depth and sincerity
- make everyone feel remembered
- always hear what others are saying
- be humble enough to serve when unnoticed
- learn to trust God like she does
I am changed because of this family. And I pray that when I go home, I'll be taking some of their perseverance and perspective with me. I've been reminded just how precious my own family is, and just how privileged I am to be a part of it. Attema family, I'm so grateful for you. May God's grace and peace continue to flood this home.