My amazing son, who I'll call J, is three, and was diagnosed soon after birth with a relatively rare genetic condition. We don't yet know how it will affect him as he grows older, but so far he has battled an array of medical problems. One thing's for sure, our little family's life will never be 'normal'...
One of the most surprising positives, for me, of having a 'special needs' child has been the caring support not only from friends but from strangers. Today I want to pay tribute to one of those strangers who has become a friend I admire enormously.
Her name is Celia and she is the founder of the most amazing weekly playgroup for under-fives with extra needs called The Challenge Group.
I heard about it soon after J had come home from hospital - he was nearly six months old when we first visited, and as soon as I saw Celia's warm, welcoming smile, I knew I was among friends.
When we left, she handed me a bouquet of flowers, donated by a local florist to a different parent each week.
The Challenge Group is a special, special place. There are lovely toys and plenty of space for the children and volunteers from the local church who help look after them, so the parents can truly relax and talk to one another.
Three older ladies serve tea, coffee and delicious homemade cakes (at least three different kinds every week!) While a masseuse is paid to work with the mothers one-on-one for free in one quiet corner.
After play and chat, we all come together as a group to sing nursery rhymes around the piano. Sometimes a local business will come and give a session in, for instance, making a plate with your baby's footprints on. Every child's birthday is celebrated.
I think what makes it stand out from other special needs playgroups is the genuine love that fills the atmosphere.
Every parent who comes is welcomed in such a friendly way, and this is a place where no matter what kind of week you've just had, you know you can get 90 minutes of rest and support.
Here, you can let go; people cry if they need to - though usually the air is full of chattering and laughter. And if your child is different, everyone understands. It's a bit like a family.
Again unlike other special needs groups, this one is run by a mother who, herself, has a child with a disability. This mother is Celia, she is a committed Christian (though the group is for people of all faiths and none) and here is her story of why she started the Challenge Group:
"I was devastated when we had a child with learning disabilities and questioned how a loving God could allow this to happen. Even though people were kind at church, I still felt very isolated through this experience.
"For several years, I felt angry with God and wrestled with Him. I was someone who had never felt comfortable with people with disability and like many had felt a fear and even repulsion of those with complex needs.
"When our little girl was about four years old, I searched for a support group with other parents who might be struggling with similar feelings of isolation. Local GPs and health visitors were unable to direct me to a suitable group.
"When I was at my lowest point, I had a dream during which I felt that God was speaking to me. I dreamt that I was standing in a grey concrete room fishing from a shallow puddle. I said to my husband, 'There's just no point.'
"Then I felt a hand on my shoulder telling me to cross over to the other side of the puddle, saying 'You have to change your perspective.' After stepping over to the other side I began to reel in fish after fish. They were brightly coloured tropical fish. This was the impetus to start the group.
"God has indeed now changed my perspective to feel a deep passion and a love for people with disabilities, so I am also being healed and transformed in the process."
Celia started the group in 2009 with just one mum and child visiting the first week. Today, around 25 local families come regularly and we all tell her it's a place like no other.
I know that for Celia, running the Challenge Group is part of her spiritual journey - she felt called by God to create this community, and it has changed her life.
Although my own family is Jewish, and others who come are from every race and religion and background, I think we all relate to Celia's feeling that having a child with a disability brings you closer to your soul, the source, love, the meaning of life, or whatever you want to call God.
Click here to read previous columns from The Secret Diary of a Special Needs Mum.
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