On Monday May 7, Zach, Megan, Amanda, Dan, Rob, and Seth walked across the stage at Dimnent Chapel to graduate as Founding Friends of the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House.
As the Friends took their seats, President Tim Brown’s voice cracked with emotion. “You have no idea how satisfying that was,” he said.
The following evening, WTS held a banquet to honor the Friends alongside their families, former roommates, and donors that made the Friendship House a reality. Professor John Swinton of University of Aberdeen, a leading theologian in disability and ministry, gave an address titled “Growing into Interdependence.” He shared his own university’s plan to launch a Friendship House in six month’s time.
In 2007, the Friendship House was created out of a need for housing options for young adults with cognitive disabilities and a desire for seminary students to learn from an often-marginalized population.
Dr. Jane Finn, professor of Education at Hope College, has been part of the conversation since the beginning. She and a team of experts helped to assess the Friends on their independent living skills before moving in. Over the past ten years, she has been studying the growth of the Friends using a measure called the Transition Planning Inventory (TPI).
According to Dr. Finn, many young adults with intellectual disabilities end up sitting in their rooms and watching television rather than developing the same social skills and friendships as their peers.
For the Friends at Friendship House, this has not been the case. Finn’s studies showed huge growth in the independence of the Friends, especially during the first 5 years. They were getting on the bus themselves, getting to their jobs, cleaning their own apartments, and enjoying social activities with others.
The Friends have proudly helped to present the findings both at Hope and at the Michigan CEC (Council for Exceptional Children) conference. There is significant interest because there are such limited housing options for young adults with disabilities.
“The Friends just steal the show,” says Finn, smiling.
INSPIRING OTHERS, OPENING HEARTS
Western’s Friendship House has inspired at least five similar but contextualized Friendship Houses, including one in Fayetteville, NC and others at Duke, Vanderbilt, George Fox University, and soon, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
“It’s unusual and original, and people from all over the world are watching,” says Professor Swinton. “The Spirit is at work in the midst of this, and there’s something really quite revolutionary beginning.”
The Friendship House has had a profound effect on WTS students, as well.
Rev. Dan DeVries lived in FH from 2012-2015 and was the Resident Advisor for two of those years.
“I learned a lot about what it means to be present and to love,” he says. “The Friends would stop by my room just to say hi and see how my day was going. At first I found myself trying to hurry them along, but as I spent more time in the Friendship House, I realized that my homework could wait a bit. I learned that to love well required me to be present to the situation in front of me.”
Now the lead pastor at Glen Lake Community Reformed Church, Dan feels as though he can be a stronger advocate for those on the margins.
“The Gospels tell us that one day Jesus ended up in a group of adults who wanted to argue about who was the greatest. While all this was going on, Jesus noticed a child,” he says. “To those arguing, the child was not even on the radar, but to Jesus that child was at the center of his mind in that moment. As ministry leaders we have the chance bring people with disabilities who are often off the radar and bring them to the center.”
Recent graduate Abigail DeZeeuw says that her time at Friendship House encouraged her to do the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) program alongside her M.Div.
“My time in the FH and in the GCDM program has given me a new lens for doing ministry,” she explains. “I’m always looking at ministry strategies or theologies and asking the questions: ‘who’s being left out by this way of doing/thinking?’ and ‘what would need to change for everyone to belong here?’”
A MEANINGFUL IMPACT ON ALL
The Friends’ parents love seeing how relationships with their children have inspired future ministry leaders. They also love seeing the ways their children have grown in ways they never thought possible.
“At graduation when the president said ‘you have no idea how satisfying that was to me,’ I was thinking—you’re the one who has no idea!” says Rob’s dad, Dr. Robert Sterken.
“All parents worry about their kids’ future…but when your child has a disability, that worry intensifies a thousand-fold,” Deb Sterken shares. “There’s a dark cloud of fear for what may lie ahead. Will there be happiness? Friendships? Love? Laughter? And of course, where will they live? The Friendship House has answered most of those questions.”
Beth Kragt’s daughter, Amanda, has learned to take responsibility for herself and has become “her own person.” When Amanda’s dad passed away a few years ago, her mom was incredibly touched by the way her roommates and the other Friends embraced her.
Dan’s mom, Laurie Mutschler, explains that their children now plan things for themselves rather than having everything programmed for them. Their communication skills, vocabularies, and articulation have greatly improved as well. Friendship House Resident Advisor Scott Van Ravenswaay shares this story:
“I accidentally scheduled another meeting during our weekly Friend time…and then later I found out that the Friends went ahead and ran it without me!”
The Friends have learned to live with different personalities and navigate conflict with roommates. They’ve also become engrained in the Holland community, through jobs and other activities. Seth and Megan attend Pillar Church, where Seth was baptized this year. Dan attends “lunch bunch” with some of the elderly members at his Methodist church every Sunday. Rob is so busy that his parents have a hard time nailing down dinner plans with him.
The Friendship House has allowed a sense of freedom for each of the Friends’ families. They don’t have to be worried about their child not being happy or having things to do. It makes their siblings proud of them too, shares Zach’s mom, Linda Aalderink.
At the beginning, the parents felt that all the Friends were “pulled up” by their non-disabled roommates. Now, they pull each other up.
Seth’s mom, Kathy Vander Broek, is acutely aware of what life is like for individuals with cognitive impairments who don’t live at Friendship House. “It’s just a void of life for so many, and our kids have normalcy.”
“It allows us to be normal,” adds Deb Sterken.
FRIENDSHIP HOUSE 2.0
The future for the original six Friends is bright. Dan and Rob will move in together to the Redbricks across the street, and Megan and Amanda will do the same. Seth and Zach will remain in the FH for one more year before transitioning.
While the first transition was scary for parents—going from childhood home to the Friendship House—there is more excitement the second time around.
“Rob is maturing like our other children, just at a really delayed rate,” Deb shares. “Just as our other kids wanted to have their own apartment or just be with one roommate, now the Friends want that, and it’s a normal progression.”
Their advice to the next group of Friendship House parents? “Breathe deep.” “it’s ok to let go,” and “don’t be afraid.”
The next iteration of Friendship House (which some are affectionately calling “Friendship House 2.0”) will have some major changes. The first change is that new FH Director Carlos Thompson will be living at Friendship House and serving on the faculty of WTS as a Nouwen Fellow for the next two years.
According to Dr. Ben Conner, who directs the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, the new house will be more programmatic—Friends will now be called “Friendship House Fellows.” The program will run for six years (two cycles of M.Div. students) and the Fellows will receive a certificate upon their completion of the program.
The Fellows will have the opportunity to take one class at WTS every year, which will challenge WTS faculty to think about classroom design, accessibility, and pedagogy. Carlos Thompson will teach a seminary class called, “Living into Community: Friendship House,” so that every student, regardless of whether they live in the house or not, can get to know the Fellows and learn about their lives.
WTS will begin processing applications for Friendship House Fellows in the fall of 2018, with the expectation to announce new Fellows in the spring of 2019. Interested parties can contact Rayetta Perez at 616.392.8555, x103 to be notified when the application opens. Dr. Finn and her team will once again assess candidates on a one-on-one basis.
The Friendship House has been Western’s grand experiment, and we are excited to carry the vision forward with fresh energy as we deepen our commitment and partnership to the Friends old and new.