Creating Connections: The Launch of Social Inclusion at South Christian

The following is the second excerpt from our new eBook, “Creating Connections: Social Inclusion for High Schools” by Ellie Van Keulen. This eBook contains resources, encouragement, and the story of South Christian’s social inclusion program. You can purchase the 43-page, downloadable eBook in our online storeIf you missed last week’s post about the very beginnings of South Christian High School’s “Connections” program, we encourage you to read it first at this link.
Jonathan Lunch Partners
Jonathan with one of his many Lunch Partner groups.

Inspired by a vision for the kingdom, a group of parents, teachers, and students with disabilities [at South Christian High School] decided that forming friendships between high school students required a concerted effort. Many of our students had participated in Circle of Friends while in elementary and middle school. The Circle of Friends model was a network of student volunteers who made a commitment to surround and support a student with a disability. However, our students wanted to create a unique organization to fit the specific needs of the high school population.

We decided to call this group Connections. Although some people were doubtful, a talented team of high school students began brainstorming as the first Connections Council. They decided to form individual groups, much like Circle of Friends, called Circuits. Each Circuit included a variety of students that did not necessarily share friend groups. The Circuit groups organized activities, played games, and just spent time together. Though the Circuit groups were successful for a time, the groups kept getting larger and the student participants challenged us to find ways to make the groups smaller. As time went on, Circuit group dynamics faltered, with interpersonal relationships causing struggles for individual group members.

Taking what we learned from Circuit groups, the Connections Council launched Connections Lunch Partners, our present model.

With the student and parent’s verbal permission, a Lunch Partner group is formed for each student with a disability.

Lunch Partners playing games
Students enjoy playing games during Lunch Partners.

Each group, formed at the beginning of the school year, is comprised of two to ten students without disabilities who come alongside the student with a special need. Students without disabilities sign up with friend groups or ask to be placed in new groups in order to get to know new students. This model has addressed the need for smaller groups and allows for more interaction. An added blessing came with this change: we rarely have difficulty with interpersonal conflict and our students with disabilities have multiple groups, allowing them to meet daily.

Furthermore, Connections Lunch Partners helps to make the lunch hour a more enjoyable experience for all involved. Since high school students desire to belong among friends, getting involved with Connections Lunch Partners is an easy way for everyone — regardless of ability — to find connections and friends. Without Lunch Partners, this part of the school day becomes another time when students can feel alone and left out. 

Since beginning Connections Lunch Partners, we have seen a huge increase in student participation.

We now have more than 200 students involved who meet two to four times per month with their Lunch Partner.

We continue to learn from our trials and errors. None of the original planners foresaw that the birth of a small student organization, Connections, would grow with such amazing participation.

Students on a bowling trip
We went on a bowling field trip for one of the Connections Special Events.

Though Connections Lunch Partners created meaningful friendships, one area still remained an issue: participation in after-school activities. Many high school students are active after school in drama, music, sports, YoungLife, work, youth groups, and more. Because students are such last-minute planners, students with disabilities rarely get invited to spur-of-the-moment activities. This need launched the idea for Connections Special Events, planned by the Connections Council. This has been a great way for students to use and develop their talents and learn responsibility. Parents of teens with disabilities enjoy the fact that their teen is being invited and participating in after school activities alongside their peers. While we are grateful for the growth of Connections, we still would love to see more spontaneous hangout times occur between students with and without disabilities.

If you feel called to address the social needs of students, trust that it is God at work. He has a heart for those the world considers forgotten, lonely, or left behind. At South Christian, we have learned to start small and let it grow from there, while praying all the way! Begin by engaging the hearts of your teens, parents, and students in prayer. Be excited and let God lead the way.


Ellie Van KeulenEllie Van Keulen was an Educational Support Services (ESS) teacher at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) from 1994 until she retired in 2016. Ellie helped pioneer the educational and social inclusion program, which has grown to include more than half of the student body. She received her teaching degree from Calvin College and Grand Valley State University, with endorsements in Cognitive Impairment and Emotional Impairment. Ellie is married to Rob, and has four children and two granddaughters.

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