From the moment I was born I was engulfed in the world of disability. My older sister had been born three years prior with the birth defect Spina Bifida, which brought with it a plethora of medical complications. My early childhood experiences were largely centred around therapy appointments, specialists, surgeries and hospitalisations. Many of my formative years took place inside waiting rooms, Child Life playrooms and the Ronald McDonald House that offered housing to families during hospitalisations. One might think that this all-consuming lifestyle would deter my parents from any notion of a large family, but these experiences would prove to be the catalyst for their calling to care for children in need. Their time in hospitals and clinics exposed them to many children without parents or caregivers who were medically fragile and ended up in foster care or wards of the state. Thus, they began fostering in 1999, specialising in children with medically complex needs. They would go on to foster for almost two decades and adopt seven children with special needs to compliment their own biological kids to make up my truly blended family of 14 siblings and more than 70 foster brothers and sisters!
It was impossible to grow up in such a family and not be impacted. My adolescent and teen years were marked by a deep love for my family and the all-too-common feelings of resentment, fear, and frustration experienced by “typical siblings” – a non-disabled sibling of someone with special needs. These feelings are entirely normal, and it is healthy to recognise these hardships, acknowledge their effect on your life, and work through the emotional scars and pain as you move forward in life. I would eventually come to a place of healing and acceptance - even joy - as a typical sibling, and at the age of 17 I felt an intense draw to the world of disability ministry after an experience serving at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat for families affected by disabilities. That summer was my own catalyst and spurred my foray into a life of volunteering and serving those affected by disability. I began by serving at every Family Retreat I could, first as a buddy, then a leader, and eventually helping found a new camp in Oregon, USA.
I would later turn my attention internationally, travelling to Ghana, Egypt, and Thailand to help distribute wheelchairs, and it was on my last trip to Thailand that I met now-husband Joey Tell who was part of our host team and had a heart for disability as I did. We were soon married and a few years later we brought the concepts of Family Retreats to Thailand for the first time. To date, we have hosted 10 such events, in addition to building an internship programme and a national led disability foundation.
I was clearly no novice to the world of disability. However, I truly had no idea how little I knew until I became a parent of a child with a disability myself. For years my husband and I had discussed the idea of growing our family via adoption, and we knew also that the need was great – especially for families who would consider children with special needs. Who could be more equipped than two people working in the world of disability? How we overestimated ourselves! And yet I am so thankful we did because it brought our daughter into our life all the way from Serbia! She was so beautiful and perfect, a chubby blond cherub, and we fell in love instantly.
And yet it was also the start of the hardest thing we have ever done. Even as young as she was, years of life in an institute had caused significant emotional damage. Her special needs warranted extensive therapy, visits to specialists and constant attention and expenses, which we were navigating in a foreign country and limited resources. For years, I had worked with other parents navigating the system in Thailand, but it was still such a shock to experience it myself. Patient advocacy is still a foreign concept to the Thai medical system, and I found myself having to fight tooth and nail to get my daughter what she needed. How much harder this struggle must be for the families we served, who lacked access to education and often knew very little of their child’s diagnosis or prognosis!
But now, when a mother sees that I share her experience and struggles, but also her joy, it opens hearts in ways that never could have been opened before. Barriers of language and culture fall away, and I can come alongside her and share that her child is not a source of shame, but a valuable, beautiful gift from God, created in His image. She listens because she knows that my words are not empty, and that the gospel is not empty.
Written by Jasmine Tell, RICD, Thailand
RICD Wheelchair Project