Tag Archives: special needs

So Many Reasons to be Thankful!



This time of year I find myself reflecting on all that I have to be grateful for. With the Thanksgiving holiday comes acknowledgement of all those blessings that we perhaps overlook or take for granted when our focus is not on thanksgiving and counting our blessings. It is perhaps a sad reality that it takes a nudge from Hallmark to get us thinking about all we take for granted. But I am grateful for a reminder to ponder on all the blessings God has bestowed upon our family.

One of those blessings is the opportunity we have had to teach our children at home for the last 14 years.

Homeschooling wasn’t a lifestyle choice we sought out. Rather, it was one that landed in our lap unexpectedly. Gracie attended a traditional “brick and mortar” public school for Kindergarten. It was a wonderful experience and we had no reason to seek out a different educational path for her (or the children that followed) and yet during the summer between her kindergarten and first grade year we began feeling prompted to look into homeschooling. This heavenly nudge scared me to death. I didn’t know the first thing about homeschooling, I had no idea where to start, and I knew everyone we love would think we were crazy, but the more I pushed off the notion of moving our child back home for school, the more God pushed back…

So, I began to research our options.

I soon discovered that the resources and support for this educational path were abundant. There were so many options and so many paths within the path of educating children at home. We finally decided to take the leap of faith. The thought that calmed my nerves was that it was only 1st grade. Surely I couldn’t mess Grace up too badly over the course of one year…It was only 1st grade.

The journey that began with such anxiety and uncertainty soon became the source of much joy and endless blessings for our children and our family as a whole. We decided to take the path of cyber schooling, choosing a cyber school that first year that would allow me to do most of the hands-on teaching but allowed for the teacher-support and accountability that made me feel more secure in this new role.

As our first year came to a close I knew that this was the right model of education for our family. We fell in love with the school-at-home lifestyle and all that it offered us as a family. A year that began with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty ended with feelings of gratitude and a sense of accomplishment. We had done it and done it well.

When we felt the nudge to begin walking this unfamiliar path we had no idea the “why” behind the prompting. We didn’t have any idea of the challenges the next few years would hold, or how this educational path would benefit our family as we navigated those challenges, until we found ourselves in the midst of them…

Challenges like Grace and Molly’s reading struggles due to Dyslexia, Rusty’s challenges with Selective Mutism, and our adoptive sons’ needs for therapeutic support and opportunity for family attachment made the home school environment ideal for meeting their unique, individual needs.

There is no way we could have anticipated those challenges when our children were small but Heavenly Father could and He set us up for success as a family by placing us on the exact path we needed to be on to support our children in their own individual journeys.

Over the last 14 years we have spent countless hours reading novels while snuggling on the couch, performing countless science experiments at the kitchen counter, working our way through endless math worksheets that got progressively harder with each passing year, traveling around the state to learn first hand about the world around us through countless field trips, and making lifelong friends through our co-op and cyber schools. We have been blessed with thousands of extra hours to parent, teach, and train our children at home while most of their peers were spending their days with teachers and school staff, a blessing that has allowed us to facilitate growth that would have been especially challenging had we traveled a more traditional path.

This pattern of education is not the right fit for every child or every family, but I am so grateful we were nudged (or shoved) onto this less traveled path, because it has made all the difference.

This year Braden was our 6th child to venture down this road. Last year he opted to attend our local public school but during the summer he came to us asking if he could be cyber schooled for his senior year. It has been a great fit for him and he is thriving. So much of that success is due to the phenomenal cyber school that has been an incredible blessing to our family for the last six years. Braden has joined Rusty at 21st Century Cyber Charter School for 12th grade. This is the same cyber school that did such a phenomenal job of preparing Grace and Molly for success in college. As I consider the blessings that have accompanied this educational journey, 21st Century is at the top of that list…

So, it was fitting that during this month of gratitude, we were able to join staff and other 21CCCS families at the Murrysville location for a Thanksgiving dinner.

The outing was split into two parts. First came the preparation. Then came the feast. The students arrived at the school building two hours prior to the scheduled feast to cook the Thanksgiving meal for their families.

We dropped off Braden and Rusty and they, along with other students, began preparing our meal.


When we arrived two hours later the yummy smells permeated the halls.


When Tyler, Toby and I walked in we found the students and staff enjoying a Thanksgiving trivia game.

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We joined in using our phones to compete against other players in the room.

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Then it was time to eat!

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The students had all done a great job of preparing a mouth-watering feast,

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Complete with pies for dessert. Rusty and Braden made the Oreo crème pies for the meal.

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It was a wonderful celebration of all that we have to be thankful for.

And for this momma, our school-at-home journey and 21st Century Cyber Charter School are found at the top of that list!


We are blessed!


ICONz for Ozzie


Recently Ozzie has started taking part in an activity that is solely his…

And is loving it!


A few months ago our Family Based therapy team connected us with the amazing people at Parents in Toto. This non-profit organization, based out of Zelienople, offers support to individuals on the Autism spectrum including parental support, social skills groups and family activities multiple times a month. This year they are also offering a free ICONz class at their center, made possible through a state grant.

While visiting Parents in Toto, we were introduced to the ICONz program and knew that it was a program that would benefit both Ozzie and the entire family. In addition to teaching needed skills, this class allows Ozzie to meet twice a week with other 13-18 year olds  on the spectrum and hone his social skills in a fun and engaging way.

So, what is the ICONz® Program?

The program is designed for students to learn positive ways of responding to social situations and the underlying complexities of these interactions.

The ICONz® Program is uniquely based on research conducted in local high schools with curriculum written and developed by Russell Johnson, PhD, founder and principle of ICONz® Associates, LLC.

How does the program work?

The program uses a series of stories that describe characters in everyday social encounters. Students are introduced to visually-based concepts/cues that help the main character achieve a positive outcome. The ICONz® Social Concept Cues enable students to understand the complexity of social expectations and choose positive responses. This language-based curriculum requires basic verbal ability to participate in the exchange of ideas.

 The program is most successful when the ICONz® language is used in the group and at home.

The ICONz® Toolbox Curriculum

Dr. Johnson’s experience with verbal adolescents and adults with ASD is consistent with recent advances in autism research suggesting that these individuals are better able to perform behaviors which he calls Information Processing Skills but perform less well on tasks which focus on Social Relationship-Building Skills.

Based on his research, Dr. Johnson has developed a curriculum that integrates practices that have been found to be helpful in working with verbal individuals on the autism scale. The ICONz® Toolbox Curriculum is based on the use of ICONz® Social Concept Cues, a set of easy-to-remember visual cues and their accompanying reminder phrases. The ICONz® Curriculum contains a series of lessons that illustrate how to use the ICONz® Social Concept Cues in everyday life through stories, social autopsies, brainstorming other options, journaling, and life application.

The ICONz® Curriculum helps verbal individuals with ASD learn more effective Social Relationship-Building Skills and improve their ability to balance relationship-building and Information Processing Skills in everyday social life. The goal is to help individuals with ASD learn to improve the quality of their lives in terms of independence and overall satisfaction in their relationships with other people.

ICONz® Social Concept Cues

The proprietary ICONz® Social Concept Cues are a specialized visual language designed to help individuals learn, remember, and apply basic social concepts and behaviors in every day life. These vivid, compact symbols serve as powerful visual cues to activate social behaviors learned in conjunction with the ICONz® Toolbox Curriculum. Some targeted social behaviors include compromise, self control, and “getting the big picture” (context). These and other verbal and social behaviors are especially difficult for individuals with ASD.


Ozzie has now been participating in his ICONz group for a few weeks and is LOVING it. The setting is interactive and engaging and the affect of that engagement is understanding and retention of the concepts taught.

We have also begun introducing each of these principles in our home in an attempt to have these key phrases become part of our common vocabulary. While developed for those on the spectrum, the principles are good basic human skills that everyone can benefit from applying to their interactions with others. I have especially seen how this ICONz  model could be beneficial for parenting children who have experienced trauma. The visual cues and short/clear verbal prompts are a great fit for the way the brain works in a child who has experienced the physiological effects trauma has on the brain.

Ozzie meets with his group two evenings a week and wishes it was more!

Thank you, Parents in Toto, for blessing our lives with ICONz,

What an amazing program!

Icy Roads Ahead



Winter has finally hit Western Pennsylvania and from the sounds of predictions being whispered in the produce aisle of the grocery store this winter promises to be colder and snowier than the last few years.

Last winter we lucked out with milder temperatures and minimal snowfall…both a blessing from the perspective of Momma chauffer…. Which doesn’t mean I love a good snowfall. There is nothing I fantasize more about during the winter months than a snowfall epic enough to shut down the state and  allow us to hibernate at home for a week or two. Unfortunately epic snowfalls like that rarely come about and instead we are faced with cold, ice, and snow minimal enough that life marches on, but significant enough to make life more challenging.

For our family that challenge comes as a result of a full size van that performs poorly in the ice and snow, and a steep driveway that is accessible during the winter months only to 4WD vehicles. This means that when snow coats our gravel driveway we have to park at the bottom of the driveway and hike 1/2 mile in to get to our home.

We have become accustomed to this winter tradition, always leaving the house dressed for a winter hike on the off chance we won’t be able to make it back up the driveway, and often carrying a sled or two in the back of the van to help transport groceries and gear up the long driveway if the van won’t make it.

The challenge, however, is often simply making it TO the driveway. Living in the country means our roads are often the last ones in the area to be cleared, so it is always with a prayer and an adventurous spirit we venture out after a snowfall.

Today was no exception.

It seemed the weather was reflective of the last 24 hours at home…a bit icy and dicey.

Here is the reality:

I always struggle with writing about the darker side of adoption and the hard days at our home. And by hard days I’m not talking about sass and spilled milk. I’m talking about epic tantrums that last for 12 hours.

I struggle with sharing for multiple reasons.

I struggle with the challenge of simply vocalizing the reality of this journey. It is a crazy ride of ups and downs with an ever consuming barrage of emotions that are so hard to comprehend by someone who hasn’t lived it that I often feel it is not worth trying to verbalize. And that feeling of defeat can often be seen in the longer stretches of silence on the blog. When things are unbearably hard I am too worn down to type.

I struggle with finding the balance between honoring the stories of my children and their individual struggles, while being real and honest and raw about our life, because it is a life full of blessings even though those blessings aren’t always neat and tidy and may seem unconventional to others.

But I write.

I  write to educate others and share the things that have worked or been an epic fail for us on this journey in the hopes that someone else might find answers that they are searching for.

I share to encourage. Our message is never intended to gain accolades or sympathy or promote judgement about our children. We share our story of struggle so that you might find strength in your own story of struggle, knowing that you are not the only one struggling day to day to find direction, hope, joy or simply a moment of sanity in the midst of the darkness you find yourself lost in.

I share with the hope that the truth of our journey might lead you to be more empathetic towards people in your life that are walking a similar road. Raising children with special needs, whether yours biologically or  those who have come to you through foster care or adoption, is exhausting and hard, and if by sharing our story you feel inspired to reach out and lighten the load another family that is struggling as a result of an understanding you have found in our story, than the time spent and the vulnerability that comes from opening our life to others is worth every word.

I share to bring awareness to epidemic of neglect and abuse that destroys the lives of thousands of children daily. I share my boys’ struggles to bring awareness to the devastating affect anger, substance abuse, pornography, hatred and basic neglect cause. The sins of the parents not only destroy families and hurt children, they change children. I watch my boys try to navigate life with the same devastating diagnoses of PTSD that a soldier, a grown man exposed to war, shoulders. A life with Reactive Attachment Disorder, a disorder that changes the very brain function of children whose most basic need for love was not met in infancy, and is, according to our therapist, “The most challenging mental disorder to work with and heal.”

I share to bring a voice to my boys and all the children who struggle and are judged by their behaviors by those who can’t or are unwilling to dig beneath the surface of the “bad kid” label and consider the hurts and emotions driving those behaviors.

I share to end the silence, because as far as I’m concerned there is too much uncomfortable silence surrounding this important topic.

Which brings me to my point.

Today, on the way home from church, as we neared home we found ourselves stuck halfway up an icy hill not too far from home. This road was not only icy but also narrow, with sharp curves and steep drop offs. We were a quarter way up the hill when I began to panic that we would not make it. I hadn’t realized how steep the grade was until we were climbing. Halfway up the hill our tires began to spin, and 100 feet later we came to a stop. The van wouldn’t climb any further. The road was too narrow to turn around. So we began creeping our way backwards, down the hill, in reverse. It was a painstakingly slow process as we worked to keep the van in the middle of the curving road and away from the drop-off alongside the road. Every turn was a blind corner. We knew that we were at risk of being hit from above or below by a car taking that corner too quickly. We prayed and creeped along. The journey down the icy road became a familiar analogy of our adoption journey with close calls, frequent corrections and adjustments, and a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel.

Along the way we encountered a few vehicles. All saw us before tragedy struck but even those encounters were familiar and comparable to our adoption journey, with some drivers honking in frustration at the inconvenience our struggle was for them, while others simply drove by, eyes focused straight ahead, unaware of the breakdown happening just feet away from them.

Then there were the good Samaritans…those that noticed our struggle, stopped to check on us, and offered their assistance to help us get back home safely and in tact. After a extremely challenging Saturday  I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to those in our life that “honk,” those that simply drive by not noticing, and those who stop and ask, ” What can I do to help?”

I am so grateful for those good Samaritans that stopped me today and asked, “What can I do to help?”

You know who you are.


And while there is often nothing that can be done to help, like by the fellow drivers that stopped us on that icy road,

the inquiry, the love, the words of encouragement, and the concern shown by others can be just the boost needed to keep crawling forward.

During this Christmas season, as we celebrate the hard journey taken by a faithful young man and his wife heavy with child, let us all take notice of those around us traveling lonely, hard roads. Let us be more like the humble shepherds who chose to look up and then show up.


Let us judge less and love more.


Let us love as Christ loved.

Baked with Love!


Saturday we had an unexpected surprise. We received a call from Sandy, Zoey’s mom, asking if she could steal Ozzie away for the day for some special brother/sister time together. I was thrilled…both for Ozzie, who is still missing his biological sister, but also for Toby and I who haven’t had a date in while. It was much-needed for all involved!

We met in Cranberry where we surprised Ozzie with sister time. Sandy loaded the kids up and they spent the day going to lunch, exchanging Christmas gifts and seeing the new Annie movie.

Ozzie and Zoey

Ozzie and Zoey

Toby and I stayed close by in case we needed to pick up Oz earlier than expected. We had the best day I’ve had in a long time! We spent the day doing last-minute Christmas shopping and grocery shopping. It was wonderful being able to visit without little ears listening and talk without little people interrupting. We are still not in a place with Ozzie where he can be left with siblings or inexperienced babysitters, so we haven’t gone out alone for a long time. We had a great time snacking at Costco, shopping for the kids and TALKING, really talking, to one another. Before we left to pick Ozzie up we had lunch out at Primanti Bros.. It was a perfect day and it left me feeling reconnected to my husband and recharged after a hard month.

Ozzie had a great time with his sister and as we were saying goodbye to Sandy I gave her a hug and told her that today was the best Christmas gift ever!

Adoption, like all challenging seasons of life, can take a toll on a couple’s relationship. The fatigue I feel daily is comparable to those early years of parenting when I had a sleepless newborn and busy toddlers. Parenting a newly adopted child with challenges requires the same active parenting and supervision that parenting a little one would, except with a lot bigger tantrums. The effect brings about a weariness and a numbness that is challenging to a marriage. I find myself, on the worst of days, laying in bed  before we turn off the light, thinking of the things I need to tell Toby  and realizing I simply don’t have the energy to converse.

“I’ll just tell him tomorrow,” I will think to myself.

This is why Saturday was such a gift. For six hours I didn’t have to referee, guide, direct or parent. I could simply be a woman and a wife.

It was a precious gift.

In the evening we had planned another favorite family tradition, Gracie’s pick for the season:

Christmas Cookie Decorating!

It was a fun, creative, yummy way to spend the evening. 🙂

All ready to decorate...

All ready to decorate…

Father and son...looking good in green!

Father and son…looking good in green!



Busy working

Busy working

It is so much fun to play with your food!

It is so much fun to play with your food!

Toby, Molly and Grace

Toby, Molly and Grace

The finished products...all ready to put out for Santa!

The finished products…all ready to put out for Santa!