Category Archives: Volunteering

A Christmas Extravaganza

As most people are aware who know me through FIN and the disability community, my daughter Samantha is severely affected by autism. The past couple of years especially, have been a struggle as we help her through some challenging anxiety and medically related issues. For Samantha and many other people in our community with severe developmental disabilities, it can be very difficult to participate in community events and gatherings. Instead of risking a meltdown or maybe not even being able to get in the door because of anxiety, we opt to stay home.

Yet the social, community-loving person in me never gives up and I am grateful to the many organizations and faith communities in Hampton Roads that are striving to be welcoming, understanding and inclusive, making it easier to participate in the community.  From organizations like Virginia Stage Company that is offering a sensory-friendly performance this week (Theater for Everyone-Wed. Dec. 12) for people with disabilities and their families, to faith communities who intentionally welcome and celebrate people families affected by disability, I sense a developing tide of awareness in our community. I share the following story to encourage all who are working hard to develop awareness and provide opportunities to support individuals and families affected by disability. Thank you and God bless!

Karen Jackson,

Executive Director, Faith Inclusion Network

A Christmas Extravaganza

The other night, my daughter and I attended a beautiful gathering put on by the youth of Grace Community Church (EY2S Missions) in support of The Chosen Ministry, a social ministry for adults with disabilities that Samantha and I attend regularly. This “Christmas Extravaganza” included dinner, music, fellowship time, preaching and even a modern, adorable Christmas play. It truly was an extravaganza, but so much more in terms of their efforts to make everyone feel loved and welcome.

When Samantha and I arrived at the church, we were greeted by at least a half dozen members of the youth group, all at the door with the sole job of welcoming us to the gathering. Samantha shyly made her way into the well-lit church, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the holiday lights. She loves all things Christmas and I could tell she was excited to be at a party!

Samantha and Samantha posing for a quick picture at the end of the evening.

We made our way in the gathering room and were immediately befriended by a young intern named Samantha. She works with Pastor Jeff Montgomery coordinating the work with their youth and EY2SMissions. After just a few moments, it was clear to me that she has a heart to love and connect with people with disabilities. I enjoyed watching her speak with my daughter, unfazed that Samantha was not speaking back but none-the-less making a connection.

The evening continued with dinner served by the joyful and engaged youth. We also listened to the testimony of a friend of ours, Jenny, who has a disability and also a gift for sharing her faith and her story. “How perfect”, I thought, “that this gathering encourages people affected by disability to not only participate, but to lead!”

Jenny and Pastor Jeff

I enjoyed my conversation with the other people at our table. A sweet couple next to us shared that their son has Aspergers. They live close to the church and participate in many of the activities offered. I was thrilled to observe that their 15-year old son had a part in the youth’s entertaining Christmas play. Even though we just met, I could tell these parents were proud of their son for participating on stage. He really did a great job!

As the evening progressed, I realized that Grace Community and their youth were living out their faith and doing everything so right in the way they strive to love and include everyone.  Regardless of the person’s abilities or behaviors, the feeling of acceptance was palatable.  From the warm welcome to the understanding of inclusion, this place is actively building leaders that will one day be engaged, understanding adults. This gives me tremendous hope and it was a blessing to be a part of the evening.

Members of EY2S Missions Youth Group at Grace Community Church

Samantha didn’t want to leave that night, and who could blame her? She felt welcomed, accepted and understood. (And so did I.) As the youth were busy cleaning up and putting up the tables, Samantha and I reluctantly headed out, feeling the warmth of true acceptance. It was an extravagant night, and we feel blessed to have participated. Thank you, Pastor Jeff and the EY2S Missions team. God bless!


“Putting Faith to Work” and why we need YOU in the Community Conversation, “All Play and No Work”

Last year, the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability released a guide called, Putting Faith to Work: A Guide for Congregation and Communities on Connecting Job Seekers with Disabilities to Meaningful Employment.  I was immediately struck with the realization that not only was my own daughter (who has a disability) transitioning soon to life beyond school, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people affected by disability in our community that cannot find any work or volunteer opportunities. The Putting Faith to Work Project ignited in me an excitement to invite our faith communities to go beyond what they offer for inclusion efforts in their congregations on the weekends and envision how faith communities can have an impact on “the other six days” for persons who live with disability.

The opening letter in the guide states this invitation beautifully; “The Putting Faith to Work project empowers faith communities to support people with disabilities as they find and maintain employment aligned with their gifts, passions and skills. This pathway to work is forged by tapping into the person network, creativity, and commitment existing within any congregations. Faith communities have a wonderful opportunity to enhance the lives of many people with disabilities, their families and their communities by helping people find meaningful jobs, assume valued roles, and shared their talents with other.”

On Friday, May 18, 2018, Faith Inclusion Network, in partnership with Eggleston Services, Enoch Baptist Church and NAMI Virginia Beach will be offering an opportunity to discuss the topic of employment and disability at the Community Conversation and Networking Event entitled, “All Play and No Work”.

If you or your faith community are looking for a way to begin or develop your efforts to supports individuals and families affected by disability in a unique and forward-thinking way, I encourage you to join us on May 18 learn not only what our community has to offer right now in terms of employment for those affected by disability, but also how you and your congregation could make a life changing impact on a persons who just wants to have the opportunity to contribute and use their gifts.

Hope to see you there!


Karen Jackson

Executive Director

Faith Inclusion Network


Essay Contest: Blog #3 Colleen Stefanowich

I have known Colleen and her parents through Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry for many years and have always appreciated her quick smile and willingness to help.  Colleen is a friend to many, including myself and  my daughter Samantha who has autism.  Whenever we visit Church of the Holy Family‘s Chosen Ministry events and run into Colleen, I can be guaranteed a huge hug and that she will go out of her way to say hello to Samantha, understanding that Samantha cannot respond in kind but accepting and so loving all the same.  

It doesn’t surprise me then, that Colleen is so involved at her church and that she has an incredibly positive attitude. Thank you Colleen for submitting this essay and allowing us learn a bit about you. -K. Jackson



“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in   persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)

Growing up with a disability wasn’t easy but having two siblings that I am close to helped even though they couldn’t take it all away. But them listening to me helped me growing up.  I felt bad for them, but I also thought they had it made.  I felt bad for them because they didn’t choose to have a sibling with a disability but they got one anyways. They also had to watch struggle with things that came easy to them. I also had to do things a bit differently than they did growing up. They never treated me any differently because of it.

I thought they had it made because in school, they were able to be in classes with other normal kids. They also got to do some rites of passages in life I never got to do. Things like get their licenses and go to a university.

I have a disability called dyscalculia, which is not a very well known or a very common disability, not very many people have heard of it. Dyscalculia is a math disability, so everything that has to do with math isn’t easy. For example, things like telling time (unless it’s a digital clock), making change, counting money, doing math , reading music. Reading certain numbers will actually overwhelm my brain because it’s way too many numbers, and my brain will   actually shut down because its way too many numbers too look at.

I was recently diagnosed with a vision problem called keratoconus.Basically, that’s just a big fancy word  for cone shaped cornea, which causes major vision problems, and potential blindness. I actually had a procedure done on November 15,2017 to help salvage the vision left in my right eye.

My church family is nothing short of amazing!! I sing in the choir, help with children’s church, and sometimes Sunday school by being a buddy for other students with disabilities. There have been some choir members   who give me rides home from church and practice. I have another choir member who so graciously helps me up and down the stairs from the choir loft for communion. I also have another choir member who has typed up the words to the songs in a bigger font so I am   able to see the words better due to my low vision. They have all done this without anyone asking them to do these things. All of these things have made it possible for me to feel an important part of the choir.

I love my Church of the Holy Family!







A Call to Encouragement

Last Thursday evening over sixty people from our community gathered at Second Presbyterian Church, Norfolk to support FIN and learn more about the current work and vision of our growing organization. Beginning our 10th year, this is an important and exciting time in the development of our small non-profit, working towards our dream of making the congregations of Hampton Roads the most inclusive and welcoming in the country-envisioning a world where all people affected by disability are accepted, included and celebrated in our faith communities.  Many, many thanks to members of Second Pres., volunteers and supporters who made the reception a wonderful first time event.

In the wake of this successful gathering however, I began to feel extremely overwhelmed.  There is so much work to be done; challenges of time, finances and the daunting task of helping our community in general understand what FIN is about seem almost insurmountable.  I needed to take a moment or two to understand what God was doing with all of this…and so I turned to my Bible.

Members of FIN Clergy Council: Catherine Monroe, Jack Howell, Michael Panitz, Craig Wansink, Wendy Wilkinson and Michael Daniels

Members of FIN Clergy Council: Assoc. Pastor Catherine Monroe, Pastor Jack Howell, Rabbi Michael Panitz, Pastors Craig Wansink, Wendy Wilkinson and Michael Daniels

I found myself in the book of Nehemiah.  It had been a long time since I had read about Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and I was reminded that it didn’t exactly go so smoothly for him.  Workers got tired and discouraged, and were even threatened by those that opposed building the wall.  Although the challenges of building FIN are obviously very different, Nehemiah’s words jumped out of the page for me: “Don’t be afraid of them, Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…” Oh yes, my heart agreed, God is both great and He is awesome. Just the other evening, FIN board member Pamela Tanner was talking with a guest at the reception and shared, “What I love about FIN is that it is a God thing…we certainly couldn’t have come this far without God.” I couldn’t agree more.

I also related to Nehemiah’s words in Chapter 4:19-20: “The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”  I immediately related to that idea, and thought that maybe FIN is called to be that trumpet. We go out into our faith communities, many working hard to diligently embrace the work of inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations, yet we can feel alone in our efforts sometimes.  FIN’s events, whether they be receptions, workshops or conferences, herald the opportunity to come together to learn from, support and encourage one another.  We are stronger together and our God will fight for us and with us!

As FIN moves forward, I ask that you consider three ways to support our efforts and work in the community.  All of them are equally important.

  1. Share. Use our Facebook pages, share emails, tell your acquaintances, friends and co-workers that there is an important effort building in our community; an effort to ensure ALL people are welcomed and accommodated in our faith communities, an effort to ensure that all people have the opportunity to worship and be an active part of our congregations. and
  2. Become a member. Visit the membership page and choose one of our four membership circles.
  3. Pray. As an organization based on faith, we do not underestimate the power of your prayers. Please pray for our efforts to raise awareness, educate and connect our community.

Thank you and hope to see you at our signature event this year, That All May Worship-2017 Pathways to Powerful Inclusion Conference on Friday, March 10 at Church of the Holy Family, VB-




Today I participated in an event not unusual for the month of May; a graduation.  Complete with excited family and friends, musicians ready to perform Pomp and Circumstance and festive decorations, this graduation was like the many, many others I have participated in as a student, educator and parent.  And yet, it was so much more as well. You see, this was a ceremony graduating eight young adults who reside at St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children.

I rushed into the building at 9:00 am to set up the music stands and percussion equipment for the 16 7th and 8th graders from The Williams School invited to perform.  Some of my students had participated in community service work at St. Mary’s over the past year and were prepared for what to expect at this graduation.  The rest of my students were visiting this amazing residential and educational facility for the first time. For most, this would be the first time seeing and meeting individuals who have severe challenges with mobility and communication.

Karen Jackson and Angela West

Karen Jackson and Angela West

As an established advocate in the disability community and parent to a child with a severe disability, I thought I was prepared myself for the graduation experience.  I certainly knew many of the key players at the event.  Keynote speaker Angela West is a former board member for Faith Inclusion Network as well as a personal friend.  CEO of St. Mary’s, Bill Giermak, is also a friend and a founding board member for FIN.  Even the other musicians invited to sing are friends of mine.  Dianna Swenson, who led the small vocal group, just seems to weave in and out of my life, sharing her beautiful voice and our roles as moms with children with special needs.

Yes, I felt right at home and was ready to perform.  And then we started Pomp and Circumstance and the graduates were ushered gently and lovingly into the room.

Mr. Bill Giermak, CEO of St. Mary's Home

Mr. Bill Giermak, CEO of St. Mary’s Home

I could barely hold back the tears as I conducted my students through the familiar strains of the well- known march.  I was overcome with a welling of emotion commonly reserved for the parents and maybe a few teachers of the graduates.

I spent the next hour or so listening to some beautiful presentations about each student.  Teachers, nurses and even one brother, spoke eloquently and emotionally of each graduate, sharing stories of how these individuals touched their lives.

I didn’t turn around to look at my students.  This was partly because I was struggling to contain my emotions but also because I could feel the intensity of their engagement during the event, without even looking at them.  I was pleased to give my students this experience, one beyond themselves, one they will ponder for a while, I hope.  I was also happy to share this kind of moment with them; a glimpse into my person life as a parent of a child with a disability.  Perhaps some even considered their classmate, my youngest son, in a new light, as a sibling of a person affected by disability.

The ceremony concluded and my students gave cards and small gifts to each of the graduates, getting the chance to offer congratulations and well-wishes from The Williams School.

I left with my heart full.  I was proud of my students and proud of my close associations with people in our community who are making a huge difference in the lives of people with disabilities.  I was also incredibly encouraged by how each graduate was celebrated for their own uniqueness and gifts.

This is one graduation I will treasure for a long time to come.  Today, my passion for my family, my teaching and my ministry all merged together in a way that rarely happens.  Thank you to St. Mary’s, The Williams School and my beautiful family for all you bring to my life. And congratulations to all those who graduated today!

Dianna Swenson

Dianna Swenson



How I Overcame my Disability

It doesn’t matter how old we are or what kind of disability we might have. We are still made in God’s image. Going to the Beth Sholom nursing home has shown me that there are lots of different kinds of disabilities. Some of the people have mental, and others physical, illnesses.

But they are all people. They all have souls. They all have hearts. They can all feel happy or sad.

Being a volunteer is part of how I have grown up. I’ve shown my parents that I can be more independent by going to the nursing home. I get there on my own, most days. I take the Handi-Ride.

I myself have learned life lessons from my visits to the Beth Sholom Home. Going to the nursing home has taught me to slow down around the elderly people. I have to go at the elderly peoples’ paces. I listen to their stories: some are happy and some are very sad. Since I am not rushing through life, I have time to listen to them.

Why am I here? Why is anyone here? I am here to put smiles on the too-often sad faces of the
grandparents of our community.