As we continue our (figurative) hop around the country, meeting the various Disability Concerns Canada Regional Advocates, we travel to Alberta where Elly VanAlten and Linda Rosendal represent and serve Classis Alberta North.
VanAlten, a long-time member of Trinity CRC in Edmonton, has been the regional advocate since at least 2008 and has a great passion for disability advocacy and inclusion. She is also a co-editor of this newsletter.
“My greatest joys have come from educating people on both mental and physical disabilities, and on how to enfold and relate to persons with disabilities,” says VanAlten, who lives with physical disabilities herself.
“I believe the most effective strategy is acceptance of everyone for who they are, not what they are. We are not our disabilities!”
She says this means being willing to communicate and relate to all members of the congregation in whatever way works, listening to them for clues to any issues they may have and, as we are able, offering support in the ways they say would help.
Rosendal, who has been the regional advocate alongside VanAlten since 2017 and who also attends Trinity CRC, agrees. “We can advocate for inclusion by making opportunities in our churches and programs within. Start with baby steps and grow from there!”
She explains that while everyone understands we are all part of the body of Christ, not everyone knows how to be inclusive. “We are that missing piece. We can show our churches the many resources and connections we have. Everyone matters and everyone belongs!”
She describes her passion for working with people with disabilities as having begun when she was just 15 and began volunteering with Rehoboth Camp, which serves youth and adults with disabilities.
She was so inspired by the experience that she devoted 28 years of her life to working at Rehoboth Christian Ministries, teaching volunteers and people in churches across Alberta how to include people with different abilities. She says a big part of inclusion involves educating church council members and congregations.
VanAlten concurs, adding it’s important to establish credible, strong, two-way relationships with church leadership characterized by good communication. “It can’t be just me saying ‘we have to do or get this.’ It’s important to communicate how critical inclusion is for persons with disabilities, as there are so many situations in which they are excluded or viewed as unworthy of consideration.”
A former registered nurse who worked with geriatric populations, VanAlten explains that mental health has long been a particular interest for her, ever since a doctor training her explained many patients hospitalized for physical conditions also have co-existing mental health challenges.
“That thought has stuck with me ever since, and in my career, I have found it to be very true. The mind and the body are very closely intertwined, and one affects the other significantly.”
She believes there is a critical need to bring mental health issues into the open so as to increase understanding of people living with these challenges and better consider how to support them.
“There is no stigma in going to the hospital for a broken leg and yet there is a stigma about getting mental health assistance.”
One challenge for VanAlten is the large geographical size of the classis, making it difficult to visit each of its 34 churches. “A few of them are not physically accessible to me with my disabilities, however, that will change if and when they decide to renovate, as accessibility is mandated by the province.”
“It’s wonderful to have Linda as my partner in crime, as she is very knowledgeable about disabilities, and we can travel together to distant churches once the pandemic is over,” she beams.
Rosendal finishes with the most important point of all: “It all starts with LOVE!”