Sara Pot has recently accepted a position as Community of Belonging Liaison, advocating for families of students with accessibility or disability concerns in OACS schools across the province. I took the opportunity to have a conversation with Sara about the work that she has already begun.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sara. I’m excited for the opportunity to introduce you and to share a bit about the work you’ll be doing in and for schools over the next year.
Perhaps you can start by telling us a bit about yourself.
Absolutely! I am currently living in St. Catharines with my husband Ralph and our four daughters: Emily, Sophia, Rachel, and Janneke. Emily is finishing Grade 10 at Smithville Christian High School, and Sophia is graduating from Grade 8 at Beacon Christian School. Though we love and celebrate the unique gifts of all our girls, we are often consumed with the needs of our youngest two daughters. Both Rachel and Janneke are medically fragile with complex needs.
Because I am the daughter of a pastor, we moved around often and I had the pleasure of attending several OACS schools in my youth. My elementary years were spent at Ottawa Christian School, Huron Christian School (then Clinton District Christian), and Calvin Christian School in Hamilton. I grew up in a home where helping those with disabilities was woven into our daily lives. My parents volunteered to be a respite family, so children with a variety of disabilities would stay in our home for an evening or a weekend to give parents a break. My dad was also very involved in Friendship ministries, a group for adults with Downs Syndrome. My uncle was also born with a disability that presented itself much like Downs Syndrome, and as a child I loved to visit him at the Oxford Regional Centre in Woodstock.
After graduating from Hamilton District Christian High School and then from Calvin College, I worked as a substitute teacher for several Christian schools in the Hamilton-Niagara area. Beginning in the fall of 1997, I started my first full-time teaching placement in a grade 8 classroom at Calvin Christian School in Edina, Minnesota. Ralph and I worked with the Christian school community in the greater Minneapolis area for several years before returning to Ontario in 2003.
My graduate studies at Brock University were halted with the arrival of Rachel in 2006, and later Janneke in 2009. Their complex needs overwhelmed our family, and many of our personal and professional dreams were put on hold as we sought our new normal.
As I continue to work to find the rhythm in our unique family, I have been given opportunities to advocate for children like ours, as well as offer personal insight on the tension of reconciling faith and disability. I write a monthly column for the Christian Courier called Joy & Grace, and I keep a blog journal as well. My volunteer opportunities with people and organizations in both the public and private sectors have empowered me to see the potential in finding a common understanding in supporting children with special needs.
How did some of these personal and professional experiences lead up to the work that you are currently involved in?
Because of our situation with our own girls, my husband Ralph and I are cognizant of the fact that it is often intimidating for Christian schools to say that they can welcome children with special needs. And yet, we also recognize that there are more and more families in our communities who would like to send their special needs children to Christian schools. After many discussions, together and with others, my husband Ralph and I initiated a conversation with the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) and the Christian School Foundation about finding new ways to emphasize the need for support and inclusion in our schools. I wondered if because of my own experiences of parenting two children with special needs coupled with my work in the public sector, I could help to create more of a visible, supportive role for families in schools that want to be inclusive—to set up communities of belonging.
I understand that there are several organizations that have come together to launch this initiative. Can you tell us who they are, and the role they will be playing in your work?
I am a Communities of Belonging Liaison employed through the Niagara Association for Christian Education, connecting the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools, the Christian School Foundation, and Christian Horizons in one common initiative of strengthening the concept of belonging and inclusion in our Christian schools as it relates to children with special needs.
What is a “community of belonging”? Is there a difference between ‘belonging’ and ‘inclusion’?
I really like the way that Scottish disability theologian John Swinton describes the difference between these two terms. He basically describes inclusion as a limiting word that says, “If you show up, we’ll include you.” Although inclusion is helpful to those who are knocking on the door of the school to ask for their child to be included, it doesn’t necessarily encompass a long-term vision—it’s more of a service mentality. The concept of belonging, however, is a worldview. It says that when we are looking at our community, we are going to notice if you’re not there. We’re going to say, “Someone’s missing—where are the other kids?”
I wonder if these two perspectives are part of the tension in our schools as we consider expanding our arms further to welcome more diversity in our students. Perhaps there is a fear in saying “all welcome” because it challenges our traditions and our comfort zones—and our budgets. It is not easy to accommodate or modify a curriculum or program to meet the needs of all the students, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.
What does it mean for you to be a “liaison”? What are the main goals that you are hoping to achieve in this position?
The responsibilities of my role are twofold: (1) networking and storytelling among Christian schools and (2) networking and advocating on behalf of Christian schools for stronger relationships with government and non-government agencies.
My hope is that through networking and storytelling, we will strengthen our ability to welcome more children into our schools, empowering a greater sense of belonging in our communities. I also hope schools and their respective communities will become more excited and less fearful to nurture the gifts and experiences of all students in Christian schools. This hope includes making room in school budgets and encouraging community fundraisers to build support in assisting schools and families in the often expensive and unique particulars of educating a child with special needs.
In the public sector of our communities, I will be involved in our school connections with the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) as well as building upon the often already-existing relationships that parents with special needs children have within their local Children’s Treatment Centers. The goal is to create allies within our communities, to develop relationships with local publicly-funded service providers and agencies, and to establish a clear voice for our schools when it comes to Ministry health funding.
How will the Christian school community be able to keep in touch with the work that you’re doing in schools over the next year?
I will be reaching out to schools, but I’d also encourage OACS schools who have questions or would like to have conversations with me to contact me as well. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am also planning to write monthly stories that will also be published on the OACS website, sharing glimpses of families and schools that are being affected by this project.
Thanks for taking the time to share your passion for creating communities of belonging, Sara. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work as it progresses over the upcoming year. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I appreciate the opportunity to introduce myself and to advocate on behalf of families like my own. My hope is to develop and strengthen supportive connections among OACS schools and local agencies and service providers that will assist families who desire to belong with all their children.
If you would like to learn more about communities of belonging, you are welcome to attend our 2017 Special Education Conference entitled, “Creating Communities of Belonging”. At the opening of the conference, Sara Pot will be introduced and given a chance to share a bit about the work that she has already begun in advocacy of families of students with accessibility or disability concerns in OACS schools.