Opening My Heart to You…

This blog post has been a long time in coming….because it’s such a sensitive subject to my soul in every way.  But after pondering and praying about this for a long time, it seems that today is the day to pour out my heart.

Here goes…

We actually began the journey to special needs treasures just about 30 years ago.  It’s a long story, but yes, it was 30 years ago that we said “yes” to the possibility of special needs.  Over the years we have added a total of 11 treasures and most do have special needs.  Not all of our treasures needs are visible, not all are complicated and some although thought to be special needs turned out not to be needs at all (as was the case 30 years ago).

In the midst of all this we maintain passionately that the only true special need any orphan has is for a family – a family to love them, protect them, go to bat for them, tell them about Jesus, have their back and always care that they exist!

We have some kids which we call “lifers” – meaning they will likely be with us for the rest of their lives. Jubilee falls in that category, as does Ruby and Birdie.

Of course, most know that when we brought Ruby home five years ago, the words “special needs” took on an entirely different perspective.  She is what is termed ‘medically fragile’ and every day of her life is a beautiful testimony to the healing power of our miraculous God!! Birdie is also considered ‘medically fragile’ as well.

Dw resigned his job as a senior pastor in Colorado, the kids helped him pack up our beautiful home (with the help of two precious friends – thank you Danica and Megan!!) and moved our big family to Phoenix to allow Ruby to be near our now-friend and world-renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Shafron, who had just completed three of Ruby’s five (so far) brain surgeries.

We hadn’t dreamed that bringing her home would mean resigning our pastorate and moving, but we intentionally and happily embraced God’s direct plan for our family’s life and joyfully settled into living in this beautiful desert!!

Having senior pastored for 20 years we had not had a need to ‘find’ a church for a really long time!  It was a weird transition.

We didn’t think anything really about a special needs ministry at any potential church.  Ruby was very frail and spent her days in our arms or in my sling.  Not long after bringing her home, she had her first seizure.  It was life-threatening.  Her neurologist has told me, “I do seizures every day, Ruby’s are life-threatening and truthfully, they freak me out.”  So suddenly thrust into epilepsy, as well, and the very real possibility of having a life-threatening seizure at any time, day or night, we knew holding her close was best for all of us!

But as the Lord began to heal Ruby, Ruby began to be very exuberant at church.  She would squeal loudly!  She love, love, loves to worship!!

We found that not everyone is fond of a little girl squealing loudly in a wheelchair – and I’m not talking during the preaching time, I’m just talking walking the halls.

We have basically found three types of people at churches:

1.  People who love Ruby and genuinely get excited when they see her.  The first church we attended when we moved here had a senior pastor who did this!  She would squeal with delight when we told her we were going to see her friend!  We have had other people do this as well in some of the churches we have attended.

2.  People who don’t know what to do about a special needs little girl in a wheelchair and don’t even acknowledge that she exists.  They can stand talking to us, her joyfully humming directly next to them and they choose to ignore her completely.  Truthfully that person is extremely  annoying to me.  Enough said.

3.  Sadly we have found that some people actually frown and move away from us, as though Ruby’s fragile, joyfully-squealing-or-humming-self in a wheelchair is somehow contagious.

At one place, I had been asked to speak to a women’s bible study.  I had brought Liberty with me who would watch Ruby for me.  Ruby was not her squealing, healed self at this point.  She was still very frail. Anyway, a woman on staff was standing nearby and I said, “I’m going to keep Ruby with us.”  The woman responded, “Good!  They don’t want her in there anyway!”  

It was difficult to choke back the tears.  I was grieved by her hurtful rejection of my beautiful, precious, broken-bodied gift.

And sadly, over the years, we have seen a combo of all of the above when we have attended/visited churches.

Now on the flip side, we did senior pastor for 20 years and we regretfully admit that we did not know what to do with special needs kids.  We embraced each one, but did not have a program for them.  And friends, we’ve come to realize it’s actually the church’s calling and responsibility to care for the broken-bodied and their families of this world.  It’s not a special calling it’s a privilege. 

And so it brings me to today.

After bringing Birdie home we found that most Sundays we walked the halls with both of our littlest girls: Ruby and Birdie

And each week it got to be more and more of a struggle to go to church.  Dw and I had not sat together for the better part of the last 5 years, since bringing Ruby home.  Add to that the 20 years we senior pastored – and we have had 25 years of not being together when we worship our Savior!

Dw and I talked and decided that one of us would stay home with the girls and the other would go and we would flip-flop the next week.

I began to feel extremely sad thinking that for the rest of my life we would not be together on Sunday.  Of course, I joyfully would do anything I need for my little ones, but this felt wrong on so many levels.

And what actually began to really trouble me was that we had not attended (at length) any church that embraced special needs treasures wholeheartedly, which meant they didn’t really embrace their family either.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the church was unintentionally sending a loud and clear message to my two youngest daughters:

“There is no place for you here.”

And that made me sob!!

In all that I suddenly remembered that Jesus rebuked his own disciples for trying to keep children away from him!!

In Luke 18: 15,16 the story is told:

15 Now people were even bringing their babies to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them.  And when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.

16 But Jesus called the children to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

So I talked to Dw and said, “We are sending our two little girls the wrong message.  They think that there is no place for them at church.  We have to find a place where special needs are not just accepted, but wanted, loved and embraced!!”

We began to pray that God would direct our steps, because we didn’t even know where to begin.  A google search immediately had a church pop up:  Highlands Church and their special needs ministry In His Image.

I opened the page that says, Special Needs and after reading the page, I found the video at the bottom.

It was the middle of the night and I literally wept big, ugly tears as I watched it over and over and over.

Showing Dw the next morning he agreed, we needed to visit that following Sunday.  He went and told our pastor that we needed to find a church where we could worship as a family and where Birdie and Ruby were a part.

I wrote to Missy, the Director of In His Image and explained our family, told her we would like to visit and asked if it would be okay to come the following Sunday.  I sobbed even more as I read her response.  She used words like, “what a blessing and privilege it would be to have Birdie and Ruby come!!”

I will never forget our first Sunday. Missy, along with a crew of smiling adults, joyfully and warmly greeted Ruby and Birdie! It was an incredible feeling.  And it was so genuine!! I stood in awe, actually it was complete amazement!  I felt like the girls were wanted, safe, loved and any potential need would be tended to without any begrudging thoughts!

It was crazy-wonderful to sit next to my hubby of 38 years as we listened to a pastor who preached expository-style from the inerrant word of God – the Bible!  The message was so uplifting! (With so many pastors glossing over scripture in favor of stories, current culture and political correctness, his strongly Biblical message was a wonderful relief!)

I still start to cry as I think of going to pick the girls up when service was over.  I found Ruby “singing” with bubbly delight with Miss Kelsey…and Birdie playing happily nearby!

Ruby Kelsey

photo courtesy of KPHO/KTVK

We have found Highlands Church to authentically embrace our entire family.

It has been beyond refreshing to our souls.  Our little girls love going!! They know there is a place for them – a place where people love them, accept them and want them!! Our bigger kids are loving it as well!!

So what’s the background behind In His Image ministries of Highlands Church?  About 11 years ago a family came to the then-Pastor and said, “We won’t be attending together anymore. It’s gotten too hard with our son.  One of us will stay home and we will rotate weeks.”   The Pastor responded, “That’s not okay! And if your family is feeling this, there has to be families in our community who are struggling also with this!”  

What an incredible pastoral response – sounds like something Jesus would say!! 

Now imagine how God was orchestrating all this at Highlands because Missy attended Highlands and from the time she was a little girl she just always wanted to minister to those with special needs!!  (She is an amazing woman! Seriously, I feel so honored to call her friend!! Her husband is our kids Children’s Pastor.  Doug is just as genuine as Missy.  Their family has been to dinner at our home and we had a blast!  This family has quickly become very precious to us!)

IMG_2847 IMG_2846



All 8 of our youngest treasures were part of the Christmas program.  Yes, even Ruby and Birdie.  If Ruby squealed, it would have been okay.  Elijah and Isaiah each had a speaking part and Elizabeth had a solo and was part of a duet!


Missy has the privilege and joy of directing In His Image which was born 11 years ago!!  In His Image ministers to little ones as well as adults with special needs.  They have respite nights every quarter!! They have moms-night-out regularly as well as other events throughout the year.   It’s amazing.  Truly amazing and an incredible answer to prayer!

Now I realize as I type this out that our Place Called Simplicity ministers to many.  Some actually pastor and this post could potentially give them opportunity to be offended or defensive.  But that absolutely would not be what the Lord would want!  He would desire that each person’s heart be soft to special needs…so maybe this post would be the catalyst for a change of heart toward those with special needs?  Maybe it would include a time of heartfelt reflection to each one’s heart toward special needs treasures? Maybe it would even initiate a time of fasting and praying for God to begin a special needs ministry at your church?

I actually dream of Missy doing training conferences for people to come and learn how to serve families with special needs treasures! She is more than willing to talk with anyone wanting to start such a ministry!!  


Lastly, maybe your church doesn’t have any families with special needs children/adults in it.  Then I would urge you to prepare to start a ministry…and as you prepare for the ministry, fast and pray that God would bring special needs families from around your community to be part of your church!  I guarantee there are families in your own community (maybe even right across the street!) who desperately need to know Jesus but won’t ever go to church because they have a child with special needs!! Can you imagine the joy of ministering to their children while introducing the whole family to the love of Jesus??  Win/Win/Win!!  *big tears!*

Recently Missy asked our family to come to the church and be interviewed for a news special.  It aired last night and today.  Be warned, I get very emotional speaking…I have been so overwhelmed with how gracious God is to have brought us to In His Image and how it has changed our family’s life!

Click here to see the story/interview:  In His Image – Channel 5 Phoenix

28 thoughts on “Opening My Heart to You…

  1. A church that I used to attend started a school for students with autism because of a similar question: “where does my kid fit in at this school?” They now have an amazing program that provides hours of therapy each week for students affected with mild to severe autism. In the summer they provide therapeutic summer camps.

    Instead of running from students all other private schools here turned down, they embraced them and gave them a space to thrive

  2. Thank you for sharing your heart! I have been blessed to meet your family through Highlands and you are all such a beautiful embodiment of God’s love. Your children bring a smile to everyone’s face and each one is so lovely inside and out. Thank you for sharing such deep feelings and experiences.

    1. God bless you for your kind words Cherie!! We have been blessed far more than we’ve ever deserved. We love our life! We think we have the greatest gig going on!! And truly, the post has bee rumbling in my heart for a long time. I wanted to present the truth, in love. ALL churches need to embrace SN kids and adults. The Lord would want nothing less. He loves. He doesn’t ask for just mega church to do it, but ALL. And God will make a way…even in a small country church (because there are SN folks right around them)…if hearts are willing.

  3. I rejoice in seeing this. (Tears of joy) It would be wonderful for more churches to embrace children and adults with special needs. Praying that our God would open up more churches eyes to the need for this.

    1. Isn’t In His Image beautiful? And truthfully Christy – ALL churches need to embrace SN children and adults. The Lord would want nothing less. The size of the church shouldn’t matter. It’s God’s heart and He can do anything through a willing body!!

  4. Wow Linny! That’s beautiful!

    My husband and I actually had this happen to us, when we were pastoring the littles in our church. A mom whose son had downs came and asked if she could bring him to us while she went to church and we said, “Yes, he is welcome. But please be on call because we are not skilled in this area.” She cried, right then and there and said she understood but that our Yes meant so much to her when every other church she went to said an adamant No!

    He was hard, but not too difficult and we just rolled with it. But that moment has stuck with us for a while. When our new pastor came on we mentioned the need (because J was not our only special needs kiddo, he was merely the one whose needs were the most severe) and he said he was praying for that very thing and that he was adamant that we never turn them away even without a solid program in place but instead invite the families to teach us about their special kiddos and accommodate where we can. We were always honest with the families when things became a challenge and they always seemed to have ways of helping us better understand what works for their baby.

    We have since stepped out of our position to move onto other callings the Lord has for us, but honestly, I recognize the need to pray for this very thing at our church and apologize for not doing so sooner. Lord bring on those whose giftings are with those of our special treasures and help us all to recognize their worth.

      1. Okay, so this may not seem to relate (but I guess in my mind it does…) I am currently watching season 14 of Amazing Race and there is a mother/son team on it. But the son is deaf and his reason for doing the race is to show that deaf people can do big things too. They are really good, but I find myself seeing the mom’s side of it more, where it’s she that wants the world to see that even though her son is deaf he can think and reason and be just like a “normal” individual. He shouldn’t be defined by his disability.
        It’s pretty awesome to see and it just gives me one more side of the story of the momma’s with their beautiful children who are a little different. They just want people to see them for the awesome individuals they really are and that there is so much potential in their kid!

  5. I saw the piece about the kids your family on TV. Richeon I had just finished telling our visitors about you your special family when we saw you want TV . Oh no we miss you very much miss seeing the children we are very happy that you have found a place that is able and willing to work with the kids! We are so happy for you we love you and miss you ! Now you were able to worship together Hope to see you out and about come bless you all with love from the MazzellA’s

  6. I loved the video, Linny!!! What an awesome church!!! They get the true meaning of family!!!! Oh I’m so excited for you and all God has ahead! You are my inspiration each day as I care for my own precious pile of treasures!!
    Blessings and hugs!

  7. We have an amazing ministry like this at our church. All started because our pastors daughter went to a Joni and friends family camp and became very interested in the in ministry. Our whole church is now highly involved in special-needs ministry and Joni and friends. You should check out one of their camps they are amazing. My daughter absolutely loves her time there, As do you my husband and I and the rest but it gives us and our whole family

    1. Praise the Lord for the way He works! Joni & Friends is an amazing ministry! Our church partners with them too!! I’m not sure about the camp, but will have to pray…leaving her with In His Image was a huge step for this mama! 😉

  8. I love this post. As a mom of a special needs son who is cognitivly delayed there is rarely a spot for him during the Sunday School hour at church. My husband and I have spent many mornings at home missing SS because there was nowhere for our son to go. Early on I purposely taught SS so I could bring my son along. It was the only way. But I only have one, so it is easier than a lot of people have it. The church we r in now accepts him in the regular SS class which is awesome. But this program sounds wonderful. On a side note, and I prayed about what to say here, I would say that your categories for people reacting to your special kids is not complete. Please give those that don’t have an issue with special kids but haven’t the foggiest idea what to do or say a break. I fall into that category when it comes to children like Ruby. I’ve never been around someone like her. I wouldn’t know what to say. Can she hear me? Understand me? Will a smile be enough? It’s the unknown that can be scary. I have love and mercy in my heart for children like her, yet no experience and some insecurities of my own. Which is another reason a program like this would be so beneficial. Awareness is the key. Just my two cents. XO

  9. That is such an amazing and beautiful post! I love the ministry that your church has and how it has blessed your family. Thank you for sharing and for prodding all of us to look out for God’s precious treasures. Love you guys!

    1. Thank you Chrisann – You and Alan both love so well!! I know you two would definitely be ones who would have our precious one’s backs…loving them just like everyone else! Miss you and love you guys!

  10. Awesome story. A group of people that are way too often overlooked. So great to see their needs and you and Dwight’s needs being met. Sounds like a great church. Miss y’all!

    1. Awww buddy!! So good to hear from you! We miss you bunches!! And yes, Highlands is unbelievable. What I think I am most struck with is that it’s not forced or “a job”, it’s a lifestyle. Even Ruby, Birdie and other special needs kids were part of the Christmas program in this mega church. Some of the kids from In His Image had significant parts: a narrator part, another a solo, etc. Their presence was normal, wanted, accepted, embraced by all. Missy’s influence has created a culture where the kids are love, love, loved – genuinely! Come visit Whitey and I. It’s been way, way, way too long. And we could use some good belly laughs! Love across the miles! ~Linny

  11. Oh, Linny! I am over the moon excited for your precious family to have found such a wonderful church home with a special ministry to welcome and love on your treasures! Every. Single. Church. should be this way! No surprise, I sobbed watching your interview! As a parent I can relate to the relief that comes with knowing your child is being well-cared for and loved on in your absence. I can only imagine how much more so you must feel a weight lifted off your shoulders with your precious, medically fragile blessings. Rejoicing with you in God’s provision and looking forward to hugging all those beautiful Saunders’ necks this summer, Lord willing!! 😘

  12. Linny,
    Thank you so much for this post. I am on the Children’s Ministry Board at our church and we just started talking about how to start a special needs ministry at our church. Your post is very encouraging and is a great perspective from your family. I will be sharing your post with all of the board members. I am so happy that you found a church that welcomes your entire family and that you are able to worship the Lord with DW!

  13. Oh, how I know these tears. I know this road so well, and it is painful. We have been told “your child is a distraction during service”, we have been asked to not bring the children into services with us, and we have been divided between the pew and the halls for two years now. We have even resorted to leaving our “singers” at home with a caretaker, the occasional Sunday. But that does not feed their souls. We are blessed to currently attend a church that does not mind the occasional outburst, singing, or melt down, that our girls are prone to. But, sometimes, most Sundays, we reach a level that is to much, and we have to leave the service. But, in all our years with SN children, no one has ever asked us, “what can the church do to meet their needs”, and this breaks my heart. There are several churches around the valley that have great SN programs. I am so happy you have found a place to call home, what a blessing.

    1. Girlfriend!!! Come visit! We travel 40 minutes to get to it!! You will NOT believe it. I’m serious. The drive is worth every mile…and not for a rest from the responsibilities you and I have – BUT to know that they are truly loved, valued and celebrated!! COME! I’ll meet you there! xoxo

  14. Linny

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I loved your line “maybe your church doesn’t have any families with special needs”. I’d argue “rubbish”. That can only be true because how incredibly isolated these families are. Swing open the doors wide and they will come.

    I think the same with the addicted, broken amotonally, Mentally ill etc. Most churches don’t want these individuals either bec, amongst other things, they smell, they mumble to themselves, and say innaprorooaye things. Once again, who needs Jesus more? These broken lonely souls or the Scottsdale women in their designer shoes, with their bags that cost a month of my salary. Drives me insane. Crazy.

    Rant over…

    Adam and I started at Highlands 8 years ago and it feels like yesterday. Love our leadership, our teachers, and all of our church family. Can’t say enough good things about Highlands.

    1. The designer shoes and bags drive me buggy, as does the concern about label clothes!! I told Dw that I feel like “normal” people go to Highlands, not people out to impress anyone.

      Believe it or not, one time I went to a pastor’s wives gathering and the ‘speaker’ shared how to learn to have your shoes and your purse match….needless to say ( you can tell from my life) that that was the last one I went to. At that point I had just 5 kids and I was happy to get out the door with TWO shoes that matched each other. Haha.

      Makes me wonder if they will stand before the King of Kings someday and tell Him of their merits: My shoes matched my designer purse, and my ….

      Anyway, we still haven’t met? Although I did meet your son! He had no clue who I was, but that was sweet. Hopefully we will one day! Love you already!

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