Arielle Lewis is an amazing mom and woman of faith who has a passion to help people with disabilities find acceptance and thrive in their lives and communities. She has been a special education teacher, special needs director, consultant, and more recently, God has given her a beautiful second daughter named Charlotte, who happens to have Down syndrome. She and her husband started a blog, The Lewis Pride, to help people see ability differences through “mighty eyes,” and they started a non-profit, The Mighty Waffle, a career development center that offers jobs and internships for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as providing education to the community about disabilities .
I have asked her some questions to help us understand more about children with disabilities and how parents can encourage their own children with ability differences to grow in their understanding of God’s love for them and how to use their gifts to bring Him glory.
GKFTK: What has been your experience working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
Arielle: When I became a special education teacher ten years ago, I was terrified. I was a college graduate with a degree in psychology, not education. I had no experience with those who have ability differences other than the awkward passing by in the hallways in public school. I was never given the opportunity to learn about any of these truly precious people God made until then. I soon discovered the passion ignited in my soul. God showed me this group of people He made.
He helped me see the beauty of those with “disabilities” -peace that surpasses understanding, and authentic, innate joy.
A few years later I became the coordinator of a special needs ministry, and eventually the director, at our church. It was one of the greatest blessings in my life. We were given the opportunity to provide a loving and safe environment for our ministry participants to be known and to know Jesus. We were also able to provide the opportunity for the parents and caregivers of those precious participants to have a time to reconnect with God through prayer, worship, and learning. It always humbles me to remember that only 10% of churches have programming available for those in their community with disabilities. It’s also a hard truth that about 80% of married couples who have someone they care for that has a disability eventually divorce. Due to these facts alone, it is most definitely the responsibility of the church to love this community well.
Seventy-five percent of Jesus’ miracles were performed on those who would be considered to have special needs. And so, when God showed me that church was indeed “fully inclusive,” I felt confidently led to step away from my role at that particular church so I could consult with other communities on how to best achieve an inclusive community.
GKFTK: What struggles did you go through when discovering that your child had Down syndrome?
Arielle: Our authenticity and vulnerability are some of the greatest gifts we can share with others. Even though I knew and trusted that God has a plan and a purpose in the lives of those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities because I had witnessed it firsthand, I still struggled when we received Charlotte’s diagnosis for a season. We did not have a pre-birth diagnosis. Our entire pregnancy was, what our doctor called “typical.” No cause for concerns at ultrasounds or checkups. It was about 8 hours into her life things began to look different for Charlotte. She wasn’t sustaining her body temperature and everything started downward spiraling with her health. We spent two full weeks in that hospital, around the clock most of the time. We were exhausted, terrified and the unknown cause was plaguing us. Finally, just an hour before our release, we received the confirmation that our perfect angel had Down syndrome.
We were in shock and denial. It wasn’t the diagnosis itself I was having a hard time with though. It was something different. I knew the beauty of those with ability differences. I knew the Kingdom impact people with disabilities bring. Even still, the thought of the “struggles” I believed a simple diagnosis was going to have on the trajectory of my daughter’s life was almost paralyzing in that season.
I prayed and prayed for “healing” and for “health” for our daughter; that God would remove stumbling blocks from her path. For about the first week or so I went through waves of what I can only describe as mourning.
I asked God to show me what He wanted me to see in all this. His response on my heart was one simple question. “Are you mourning the fact that she has Down syndrome or the life you planned for her that was never yours to plan to begin with?” It was a lightning-bolt, gut-check moment that forever changed my perspective. Our daughter is beautifully and wonderfully made by Him. She is His MASTERPIECE created with purpose and a plan, His plan.
I still have those “what-if” days. I have moments I fear if the people whose care she’s in will love her like I do. I have worries about finances and what happens when Josh and I are no longer here. I get scared about her health and education and what happens for her after her school years.
But then God’s quiet, gentle Spirit reminds me that we should consider the trials in our lives as joy. That any trails she walks through will only bring perseverance and thus she will be lacking nothing. He reminds me that His plan is far better than mine could ever be.
GKFTK: Tell me a little about your blog, The Lewis Pride, and why you started it?
Arielle: The Lewis Pride stands for so much more than simply our family blog. Our hope is that others will begin to see those with ability differences through “Mighty eyes,” the Eyes who created them. As a “Pride” (Lewis means Lion-like), we fight together to help impact and influence our community in this way. We try to be genuine and authentic in our experiences to offer hope to those who have walked our path or simply desire to better understand the disability community. Our family is simply that. A family. With children. Children we love dearly, whether they meet typical milestones or not, whether they have 46 chromosomes or 47.
GKFTK: Tell me about The Mighty Waffle and why you and Josh felt prompted to start it?
Arielle Lewis: The Mighty Waffle is a 501c3 non-profit program my husband Josh and I started. It is a career development program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We will, one day, open a full-service restaurant, garden and greenhouse, and indoor sensory friendly play area. Our desire is to hire and provide internships for those in our community wanting to learn these job and life skills as well as others. We are currently serving “Walkin’ Waffles” (waffles on a stick) at the Tomball Farmer’s Market every first, third and fifth Saturdays. Most recently, we began serving in the community doing events during the week day, such as serving at a nursing home for Grandparent’s Day. We are partnered with the LifePATH program, an accredited four-year degree program through Tomball College, a part of the Lone Star Community College system.
It has been our greatest joy to start this ministry. After Charlotte was born, Josh and I began dreaming about Charlotte’s future. I remembered about “the cliff,” an unfortunate reality for those with disabilities. “The Cliff” is the term used to describe the lack of programming offered after public school for those in our community with disabilities to help integrate and include them in the job market and community.
So when we began to dream about her future we wanted to make sure that she had a place to be known by her community and share her gifts with them.
Josh, being an amazing cook, had the idea of running a food truck with her one day. Meanwhile, I was still consulting with communities on how to be inclusive…and we had an “aha!” moment and realized our two dreams were really one dream…The Mighty Waffle… “where we’re butter together”. We truly desire for our town to be well-known for being inclusive and supporting those with ability differences.
GKFTK: What has God taught you about your precious Charlotte and who she is in God’s eyes?
Arielle: This is the hardest question to answer. I’m tempted to say things like “She’s our joy,” and “she brings light to our home and so many others”
While Charlotte is all those things, she’s also just a 20-month-old little girl, who He loves like any other 20-month-old little girl. She is precious in our eyes and in His because she is ours. She loves her big sister bigger than anything else. She loves Elmo and butterflies. She likes to read books with Mommy. Dancing is her favorite. She’s a typical 20-month-old in so many ways.
But. She is also different too. There’s this #morealikethandifferent thing happening in the disability community. Its intention is to extinguish fear in the hearts of those who may struggle with understanding the differences they may have. I get the platform. Sometimes the fight that wins against fear is the one that minimizes the issue. The problem with this philosophy is it conditions our society to believe the differences themselves aren’t worthy of discussion. Its unintentional implication is that “alike” is good and “different” is bad. Yes, my daughter is like many other 20 month olds. But my daughter has differences. They are not only the visible ones, though; the ones people notice like delayed speech or low muscle tone (which should not be things people are afraid of anyway).
Her differences are also knowing how to innately have joy. Or peace. Or love. Her differences stand out most when she smiles and changes the tone of an entire room. To ignore her differences means ignoring the very things that set her apart in God’s kingdom. Those differences are worth knowing and I will shout her worth as long as I am alive.
She has changed our family for the better by simply being a 20 month old little girl who happens to have Down syndrome. And she has also changed our family for the better BECAUSE she has Down syndrome.
GKFTK: How can parents of children with ability differences teach their children just how much they are loved and created special by God and encourage them in their true identity in Christ?
Arielle: I’d start by allowing yourself to trust that God intentionally gifted your child to you. That can be harder than it sounds some days; the days you’re exhausted from going to doctor’s visits and therapy, tired of trying to decipher your child’s behavior and communication, tired of battling for more services in school and inclusion in your community and church…it’s exhausting.
So, I’d say first and foremost, trust that you are intentionally your child’s parent and REST in Him.
Then, once you’ve put on your air mask, oxygen can and will fill your brain and help you see Christ in your child; each of those tiny little moments, moments I believe go unnoticed with neurotypical children, that highlight a Christ-like character. Like joy for example, shines brightly in a lot of moments in our daughter. It’s not the same kind of joy our other daughter has…this feels innate for her.
The rest of us have had to learn how to trust God first and have joy through that trust. Charlotte just seems to have it. So we call it out. We tell her, at 20-months-old, how we see that in her.
GKFTK: Are there any resources or ideas you would like to share for teaching children with “special needs” about God?
Arielle: There’s an entire world of special education tips and tricks and curriculum. Internet searches, Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, Etsy, dollar stores…anything you can use to elaborate a specific lesson. Those are my tried and true “go-to” places to find activities.
I am a firm believer in inclusion to the best of every child’s ability in that day or even moment. At the churches I’ve been at we always used the same curriculum and modified for our students so they are generally getting the same lessons as their peers. This means using the senses more.
Oftentimes the more senses used during an activity, the more likely for retention. So, using shaving cream or play-doh along with the story (pictures and reading aloud) would be a good example.
Also, it’s important to understand that just because a person with a disability isn’t communicating their understanding does not mean they are not understanding. A wise friend of mine once said, “It is better for someone to glean 10% of what is taught than to not teach anything.” We never know what God will do with what you share.
Our church is part of a network of Special Needs Ministry Leaders with Joni and Friends. Joni Earackson Tada is an incredible advocate for disability ministry and has tons of great books and resources.
GKFTK: What are some practical ways parents can encourage their children with “special needs” to grow in Godly character?
Arielle: I’d simply say to do this the same way you would with any other child. How do you teach your other children to grow in Godly Character? Hopefully, one way we might answer is by modeling it. Will our children’s behavior be perfect? Will they get it right the first, seventh, or seventy-seventh time? Maybe not. But the same could be true of our neurotypical children too. Set the example first and then teach.
Use real life situations every day when you find a teachable moment to share God’s goodness. In our world, currently, those conversations often sound like, “Look Charlotte! Puppy! God made the puppy.” Every small moment counts in God’s kingdom.
GKFTK: How can parents encourage their children with ability differences to share God’s love with others with the special gifts that God has given them?
Arielle: Get them involved at school, in extra-curricular activities, and especially get them serving others. These are the ways any child begins to learn who God made them to be (and of course by the parent’s continuous encouragement). If your child is younger than school age, simply make them a part of what you do to share God’s love with others. Bring them to the grocery store and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Share the beauty of the disability in whatever way you feel led in each moment. Charlotte is great at this. I honestly don’t feel like I lead her to do this, people are just drawn to her. She gives them joy so I simply provide the opportunities for her to do so.
This goes back to me remembering that God gave her to me intentionally and I just have to follow His will. If I am rushing through my day with her and get caught up in too many details, she (and the person’s life she could touch) suffers and don’t have those authentic moments. Charlotte doesn’t get to practice using her gifts. But when I slow down and pay attention to the joy she needs to give…there’s just nothing better that seeing Trader Joe’s full of so many happy people!
GKFTK: How can parents get involved in your ministry and help support the wonderful things you are doing?
Arielle: The Mighty Waffle is growing and we are so encouraged by our community’s support! Our hope is to, one day, operate out of a brick and mortar restaurant, but until then we work at our local Farmers Market and have begun to serve our community during the week at places like nursing homes, our local Down syndrome Association, and veterans ministries. We need volunteers to help with a wide variety of things. Also, tax-deductible donations help cover costs like the rent fee at the market, insurance, food handler’s licenses, food costs and so much more. Should you feel led, please go to our Go Fund Me Page For larger donations or for more info on ways you can help email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GKFTK: Thank you, Arielle, for sharing your story with us and helping us gain a better understanding of these precious children God created and how we can encourage them like any other children to love God and use their gifts to glorify Him. I am excited to see how God continues to use your ministry to bring about more positive impacts in the lives of children with special hearts and their communities.