Alumni Profile • Barb Bandstra Newman ’84
The heart is a circle — of friends

Barb NewmanIt was the horror stories that lit the fire in Barb Bandstra Newman ’84.

A special education teacher since her Calvin graduation, she began in 1989 to develop programs with the Christian Learning Center (CLC), a special education day school in Grand Rapids, Mich., that would fully include children with special needs in mainstream classrooms. From the beginning it was clear to Newman that integrating children with all kinds of needs into the general education classrooms opens possibilities for learning, compassion and growth for everyone.

As students in the CLC inclusive programs at Zeeland (Mich.) Christian School thrived, Newman looked forward to parent-teacher conferences. She noticed, though, that when she made introductory small talk with parents their happy expressions often changed.

“I would ask them where they went to church,” Newman said, “and I heard one heartbreaking story after another.” At worst she heard that Sunday school teachers and elders asked families to leave children with disabilities at home; at best, that members didn’t acknowledge a child’s differences — needs or gifts. The reason reactions such as these have a devastating effect on families, Newman said, is that “many times we hear the voice of the church as the voice of God.” One result, national studies show, is that more than 80 percent of persons with disabilities don’t attend church.

“And yet,” Newman continued, “when I called pastors, without exception they wanted to include the individual with special needs. They just didn’t know how. ‘Please,’ they said, ‘give us some ideas.’”

She has. Newman has written Helping Kids Include Kids With Disabilities and the newly released Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Both books are similarly designed: First they give honest and positive information about different special needs, then a bank of ideas for fruitfully including persons with those needs in the life of a church body. Sometimes a small change (such as having sound-muffling earphones available for a child with autism) turns a Sunday school classroom that has been disruptive for everyone into a hub of learning.

Circle of Friends performanceNewman stresses that churches wanting meaningful interactions with persons who have special needs must take the time “to know each person and his or her gift mix, because each is wired differently.” She is quick to point out that’s true for all of us. “God created each of us with unique gifts and needs. Some needs are just more glowing than others! But all of us are designed to complement each other.”

That truth is communicated powerfully when the drama group Circle of Friends performs. Students — some with identified special needs and all in the inclusive education program at Zeeland Christian — mime, to music, the passion story. As the risen Jesus, Jonathan von Dobschutz, a young man with Down syndrome, embraces and drapes a bright scarf of forgiveness around the necks of each disciple who has abandoned him; he does this to the music of Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.

Newman said she designed the drama to “give people a living picture of God’s heart for the community.” It’s the heart she saw, Newman said, in several of her Calvin professors. It’s the heart she hopes church congregations see when she consults with them and tells them that they, too, can be a circle of friends.

Barb Newman can be contacted at

An article by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship addresses disability and worship: "All God’s Children Have Gifts"