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Faith-based org offers support to Students with Disabilities

Faith-based org offers support to Students with Disabilities

We all long for friendship, connections and community. To be in close proximity with people is a deep desire for humanity. One of the challenges for people with disabilities is having the opportunity for friendships and maintaining them. Many people experience rejection and getting left out. Many times someone is dismissed, left hanging and wondering what they did wrong. Too often, those without disabilities do not take the time to get to know someone with a disability, not to find out about what’s wrong with them-that’s a mindset that sees the deficit in a person without seeing them first. 

YoungLife, a faith-based nonprofit organization, seeks to build bridges and foster spaces for people with disabilities to have genuine friendships and experiences that they otherwise would have difficulty with. I had the privilege of speaking with Kyle Hersma, a staff member and leader at YoungLife, and got to learn about what they do here in San Francisco and how students with disabilities benefit. The disabilities present in students vary from cognitive or developmental and some with health complications. Some students are on the autism spectrum or have Down Syndrome. YoungLife’s mission is to introduce students to faith in Jesus, create programs, hold events, and provide mentorship. “This includes normal life things-going to a Giants game, getting groceries,” shared Kyle. For someone who is typically-abled and without a disability, these are activities that don’t require much, but someone with disabilities may need additional support. Each person’s needs range depending on their age, level of comfort, independence and cognitive or physical abilities. Ultimately, the intent is that friendships would develop while independence is fostered. 

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There are volunteers who come alongside leaders to provide support and mentor students. To be a volunteer, a person must share the values of the organization, and the commitment varies. A volunteer can support events that are held weekly, biweekly or once a month. To be a volunteer leader, training is required, and the responsibilities include planning and executing events, building friendships with students by inviting them into one’s life and becoming a part of theirs. How much a person commits to is also dependent on their schedule. “This mentorship is different from mentoring someone who doesn’t have disabilities. A typical high school student might have enough friends or activities because they might not feel they need it. A lot of students with disabilities are plagued with boredom and have nothing to do.” It’s important to note that an organization like YoungLife doesn’t just provide a space for students but gives parents and caregivers an opportunity to rest. Having a child or relative with a disability comes with higher care and responsibility, and some families don’t have support from friends, relatives or community. 

Photo: Corina De Leon

When I asked Kyle what he has learned from the students he works with, he said, “I’ve learned that I don’t really know anything about disability, and there’s a lot more to learn. Simplicity of being nice to people. An indispensable part of our global community and the body of Christ. They’ve been marginalized and not reached by the church. They have a lot of value in

the church. The church hasn’t done a good job or done very well and there’s benefits of having small groups within the church and people with disabilities get pushed to create their own groups. There’s a lot more value to see the diversity. A lot of the structures of the church make it a lot harder for people with disabilities to be a part of. There are cultural differences that might make it feel hard but when you have someone that isn’t picture perfect, as a parent that can be embarrassing.” 

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I can attest to witnessing moments in which someone wasn’t able to access a space, conversation or activity because of limitations from physical and social settings. I had the pleasure of befriending a young woman who is a part of YoungLife and in the short time I’ve known her, I’ve learned that there is a lot that still needs to be done to ensure that a person with disabilities can live as independently as possible. More importantly, she has shown me the simplicity of the joy there is in life, how the small moments mean so much and that we don’t have to have so many walls up to separate us from deep connections. 

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If you’re in a place of wanting to step into supporting someone with disabilities and align with what YoungLife is doing in the city, you can contact Kyle Hersma at khersma@gmail.com and visit sanfrancisco.younglife.org for more details on the organization.

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