Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Office: The Empty Nest Syndrome

Thank you to Cathy, Administrative Assistant to Shepherds College, and Lora, parent of a third-year student, for writing today's blog.

There are two camps of parents when it comes to the topic of what the American culture calls the empty nest. Like Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable on The Cosby Show of the 80’s, some parents can hardly wait!  They are packing their children’s bags and pointing them to the door.  Good Luck, Godspeed, get a job, and off you go!  Others can hardly bear the thought of transitioning out of a life filled with the care and memories of having all their children at home.

I will admit my husband and I were in the Huxtable camp, digging suitcases out from under the beds and from the dark corners of closets, helping them pack and sending them off with all the paraphernalia we thought they would need to leave and not cleave.  We did not, however, expect the empty nest years to show up quite so suddenly when all three of our children joined the military or got married all in the same summer!  It was a bit of a culture shock, yet still, with barely a pause, we waved good-bye with a “hallelujah” and a high five as we looked forward to just the two of us once again.  Ahhh, the blissful sounds of silence!

For parents of students with disabilities, home life often harbors a different family and parent-child dynamic.  There has probably been an overwhelming attention to detail for many years which makes letting go so much harder.  Hours of one-on-one training, years of doctor appointments, med changes and adjustments, and advocating in schools and with a parade of teachers over the years does not make it easy at all for parents of Shepherds College students to drop their cherished treasures off and walk away without at least a little load of worries.  For some parents the process feels more like the shredding of their hearts and lives. It is not easy. One of our third year parents recently shared the path of her struggle in letting go of a child who had daily been an intricate part of her life.

"I miss my daughter with all my heart and soul. Every minute of every day I think of her and miss her. I can honestly say that I really do miss her all the time. I couldn’t believe how much I missed having her smiling face around and her companionship; her positive outlook on life. We were very much together all the time.  She has always brought laughter to our house. We all love that about her, and I missed that from the very moment we dropped her off. She is always happy and brings me joy, so it was a huge absence of all of what she brought to my world and that was more difficult than I ever imagined. I am very proud of her and truly miss being with her and seeing her every day! The ‘letting go' experience was far harder than we had ever expected. Speaking for just myself and not my husband, the weeks leading up to her moving into school the first year was beyond scary. I was so worried and afraid. Our student is one of three children. She is our middle daughter. Her older sister graduated from college in 2008 and is married with children. Our youngest daughter left for her first year of college at the same time as our daughter attending Shepherds College. For me, it was letting go of two of my children and becoming an empty nester for the first time all at once. 

My other two girls became independent and it was a natural transition for them to head off to college. It was difficult for me to see them off to school, and I was very sad and missed them, but I wasn’t worried about the decision of college life. It was a different situation when our daughter left for Shepherds. She had not yet become an independent adult and still required a lot of guidance. Not only was she not independent, but she was always with me. Aside from when she was at work or I was at work, she was a full part of my life and we were always together. I continued to worry about whether we had made the right decision in letting go of her and sending her to Shepherds. The first six weeks of her first year we did not visit or see her. We live in Wisconsin so we are close. I heard she was not sleeping, and she was crying and very homesick. Ugh! 

On my end, the first months were beyond difficult. I was so worried. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick to my stomach all the time. I cried all the time (and I rarely cry). I couldn’t stop worrying and wondering if we had made the right decision.  I worried constantly. Did we make the right decision? Will she be okay? Is she happy? Is she getting the attention she needs? Will she lose her spirit and her fun personality with all the accountability and structure? Will she grow? Will she make friends? What will happen at the end of three years? 

As time moved on, it became a bit easier and, although it never seems ‘normal’ for her to be out of the house and living at school, it has become routine. She has had struggles and triumphs. She has grown and learned so much during the first two years. We have noticed maturity in so many areas and confidence in her daily living and social skills. 

Moving forward, she is now in her third year. This year has been much easier than the first two years. Although there are still pockets of sadness and worries, I have come to a place of peace with our decision. I know that we would not have been able to provide the setting that she has at Shepherds College anywhere else, and that it is a wonderful school with caring and very hard-working staff. Everyone has an interest in our daughter and wants to see her be successful. I have high hopes that her final year will be a great one and that she will graduate with a clear future of success. We will be working hard this year to put a plan in place and, although the journey has been more difficult than anything I have ever done thus far in my life, I pray for the grace to support all that Shepherds is providing for her and the faith to journey through this last year with her to a successful graduation."

If you share some of the same feelings and worries, we want to encourage the parents of Shepherds College that your student is going to be okay.  They began their journey with a visit, as well as one or more overnight stays to test the waters.  They have written and expressed a desire to be here in their assessments before enrolling.  We are doing everything we can every day to give them the best college experience from beginning to end.  They are in a safe haven here in Union Grove.  Life will not be perfect, but God is watching over them.  He sees them with His omnipresent eyes.  He knows where they are.  He knows what they are doing.  He longs for them, He loves them, and He also wants only the best for them.  If you are anxious, pause.  Know that you simply cannot protect them all the time, not even when they are at home.  Offer them the gift of space, room to grow, and time to spread their wings.  Even an eaglet has to be pushed out the nest at first.  Stumbles and bruises along the way are merely part of the journey of growing stronger.  They will figure it out.  We will help them.  They will make friends and will surprisingly look forward to coming back to school after holiday breaks.  Love them in letting them go.  Let your mind be at peace.

Your nest is only empty for the school year.  Take heart, they will be back and you will be amazed at all the new things the Shepherds College adventure will bring into their lives. Hopefully, your student’s growth will so delight you that it will make bringing them back for the second or final year easier each time. Each year leads them closer to a more independent future.

This is an amazing place, and God is in it. We are so glad your student is here!  


Be still, and know that I am God. . .  ~Ps. 46:10
Shepherds College - Guiding Your Transition to Appropriate Independence. Please visit us at

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Teacher Tuesday: The Basics of Friendship & Fudge

During Preview Day last Friday, I had the opportunity to watch as different staff members talked to potential students and their families about their roles in the college. I heard Mr. Wright welcome our visitors, Mr. Terrill discuss Appropriate Independence, Miss Houk give a demonstration on R.E.A.L. learning, Mrs. Konopasek, as the Supervisor to the Academic Advisors, talk about matters in and out of the students’ control, and Mrs. Luchterhand introduce the new Ai Academy.  

Mrs. Leith then invited her 2nd year Horticulture students to the front of the room where they demonstrated what they had learned about flora and fauna since classes started in August. After their impressive presentation, Mrs. Leith asked if the visitors had any questions for her class.

I had a number of them I would have liked to ask as a new gardener – how do I get rid of Japanese Beetles in my organic garden?  What’s the difference between a slug and a snail, and can I stomp the stuffing out of them when they eat my tomatoes, or is that breaking some kind of organic code? Can the Horticulture class come to my house to landscape my yard and call it a lesson?

No one asked these questions. Instead, the questions the parents asked that stood out in my mind had nothing to do with green, leafy things and everything to do with friendships.

“Are you making friends at Shepherds College?”

“Are friendships easier or harder to make at Shepherds than they were in high school?”

“Can a shy person have friends at Shepherds?”

I was so proud of our students’ responses! They were warm and inviting – “Yes, I’m making lots of friends. It’s easy at Shepherds College to make friends. No one bullies or makes fun of you. They just accept you. Even if you’re shy, no one cares. They’ll still be your friend.”

I praised God as I listened to the students’ sincere replies to the parent’s concerned questions. Thank You for pouring your generous spirit into these young adults. Thank You for blessing them with parents who care enough to teach them about love and kindness and respecting others. Thank you for Shepherds College staff who reinforce these values to create a welcoming “home away from home” for these students.

When I returned to my desk, I had a niggling thought, a vague recollection… I knew something about how the college staff reinforces the “friendship values,” but what did I know? And how did I find out? 

I flipped through piles of documents on my desk, scanned my chicken-scratch on mini-notepads, checked all the scribblings on my calendar, scrolled through my email inbox… and there it was.  Weeks ago, Mrs. Kolkman sent me several fun pictures of her first-year Personal Development 1 class as they learned about friendship. I quickly sent her a reply email, “Send me details!”

And here it is – the tried and proven successful, Personal Development 1, R.E.A.L. lesson on friendship:

Students were paired together and given a worksheet. They had to talk to each other to find out similarities and differences between themselves.  After they found the similarities and differences, they wrote them down in a Venn diagram and drew a picture of themselves to fill in the empty space. We called them Friend-diagrams.

Then students built a Jenga tower, comparing the activity to building a friendship. They talked about how hard it is to build a tall, strong tower and how easy it is to let it fall down.  During this activity, students discovered that encouragement, trust, honesty, love, prayer and kind words are used to build up and strengthen a friendship.

Lying, breaking promises, not being dependable, gossiping, breaking boundaries and speaking hurtful words are used to tear down a friendship. 

And finally, the students worked together to make Friendship Fudge. As they talked about the 'ingredients' needed to make a friendship, they added the fudge ingredients to a bag and mixed it all together by passing the bag around."

The Recipe for Friendship Fudge:

4 C Powdered Sugar
3 oz Cream Cheese, softened
1/2 C margarine, softened
1/2 C cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 C mini marshmallows

Mix all ingredients in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag by squeezing the bag and passing it around the group. When the fudge is completely mixed, cut a corner from the bottom of the bag and squeeze the fudge out onto a pan or cookie sheet. Cut and serve!

The students put a lot of effort into that fudge. They mixed, squeezed, squished, poured and smoothed. And the end result? Something solid, satisfying and fun - much like their friendships at Shepherds College. 

Shepherds College - Guiding Your Transition to Appropriate Independence. Please visit us at

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Office: A New Sheriff (or 2) in Town!

Thank you to Cathy Harvey, Administrative Assistant to Shepherds College, for writing today's blog.

Mrs. Harvey and Miss Houk
The purpose of my share of the blogs is to write of Shepherds College life from the office perspective.  This perspective does give me a chance to see some of the “behind-the-scenes” details of what it takes to run a college as unique as ours.  For the last four years I have been working closely with Angela Houk, the Dean of the College. “Dean of the College”—a strong, noble title, like a bold broad stroke of paint across the top of a canvas, colorful and reaching from one side of the landscape to the other.  It has been a role filled with just about every imaginable task involved in a school.  

Angela was hired in September 2008, two months into the first year the college began.  She had no defined office, no desk, no file cabinet except a yellow crate on wheels, and initially held space in the Findley Center while teaching in the Wood Center.  By the time I was hired in July 2009, she had just moved to the Wood Center and received a desk, a real desk with a hutch for her teaching resources and with file drawers, and a keyboard tray.  Her “filing cabinet” was spread out all over the conference room table.  On my first day, the 2nd annual Opening Weekend was only two weeks away.  I had no idea what to do, but I knew there was much to do, so I told Angie she did not have to explain the whys and wherefores, just point me in a direction and give me instructions—she could explain the why and the history later.  She set me to filing, so we could clear the table to work on orientation projects.

I learned quickly that Angela was a passionate, gifted, focused, fun, godly workhorse of integrity.  Her passion was the students’ highest level of independence and well-being, and she was gifted in R.E.A.L.* teaching and curriculum writing, specifically, Bible curriculum, which was the topic of her masters thesis.  With swift strategic skills, she handled emergencies and “drama” with poise and professionalism.  She also directed all the daytime academic challenges, oversaw all the instructors and advisors, was an instructor/advisor herself, passed meds when needed, coordinated all field trips and after school and weekend activities, while continually training new hires in all their roles.  She helped do overnight sleep-in roles for the ladies, and it was not uncommon for staff to receive emails from her written between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. 

The first year, without a desk, office, or place to hang her hat, was a challenge to manage even with only six students.  However, the six grew to twelve, then twenty-four, then thirty-three, forty-seven, and this year fifty-nine.  
Tracy dubbed her “Dean of Everything” in a recent faculty meeting.  She wore many hats in the past, beginning the day as early as 6:30 a.m. and often burning the midnight oil. Clearly, by God’s grace we were growing and it became necessary to have two deans.  Everything here is about learning life skills, whether it is in the classroom during the day or in the dorm or on the gym floor in the evening.  It was time to divide and conquer.  

Mrs. Konopasek
Just before our sixth Opening Weekend, Tracy announced with confidence that we would now have two Deans: one to specialize in our educational goals and one to oversee the advising and residential life programs.  We all rejoiced to learn that Angela was to become our full-time Dean of Education while working in tandem with Lori Konopasek, formerly the Lead Academic Advisor, who would now take on the role of full-time Dean of Students. 

We are excited God has placed them together to further enhance the Shepherds College leadership!  So, you could say there is a new sheriff (or 2) in town, and I feel privileged to continue to work for Angela as her assistant in this role of educator, as well as assist Lori as she transitions in to many of the responsibilities Angela juggled in the past.  Congratulations and God’s strength, wisdom, and blessing to both of the Shepherds College Deans!

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