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My Christian life: Raising a child with special needs

Parents of a son who lives with a disability share the blessings they’ve experienced and how they’re helping others.

Thirty-six years ago, Diane Oldenburg, member at Faith, Fond du Lac, Wis., says she really wanted a daughter. At the time, she and her husband, Dave, already had three sons. “I prayed and prayed and prayed,” she remembers. “I finally got pregnant, and we had another boy. Nathan wasn’t the girl I hoped for, but he was the special blessing God gave us.”

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During Nathan’s first year, Dave and Diane began noticing some delays in his development. “He wasn’t sitting up, crawling, or walking like the other boys did at his age,” says Diane. “We thought, He’s just slower than our other boys; he’ll eventually catch up.”

But Dave says they were really in denial. “Diane’s family and my family started to ask us questions about Nathan. Finally, my mother lovingly told us what the rest of the family was thinking: ‘You have a special child.’ That is what moved us to take action to find out what we needed to do.”

Dave and Diane made several appointments with specialists to find out more, but they never got a completely clear diagnosis. Nathan didn’t have any syndromes, but doctors said he was “on the cerebral palsy spectrum” and had autistic tendencies. “These experts couldn’t give us any real answers,” says Dave. “We were lost.” When they had an appointment with Nathan’s pediatrician, they asked what his prognosis was. Dave says they never forgot the answer: Nathan will never get better. “That is when we hit the bottom. We thought, Why us?” he says. “Thankfully Nathan has proved all those experts wrong with the help of our families and God’s gracious love.”

Learning and growing

Diane remembers trying to navigate all the challenges in those early days. “I just asked God to guide me; there were a lot of prayers in this house,” she says. “It was hard, caring for the three older boys and Nathan too.”

But there was also a lot of happiness. Diane and Dave have always appreciated the special bond between Nathan and his brothers. Growing up, they treated Nathan “just like any other brother” and they were always protective of him when they went out in public—something Nathan was able to do much more easily, thanks to a larger cultural shift that happened while he was growing up.

“When I was young, if someone had a disability, they were hidden away or institutionalized,” says Dave. But in the early 1990s, many schools created special programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities—including the schools in Fond du Lac. As a result, Nathan was able to attend public school, which was good for him and the other kids that he got to know.

“We’ve never had to tell people how to act around Nathan; he taught them how to act. It was just natural,” says Dave. “All Nathan wants is to be recognized and have independence and dignity like everyone else. He’s not different; he just has a different way of expressing himself. He’s just looking to be loved and accepted and included.”

“He has such a big heart,” Diane adds. “He really touches the life of everyone he meets.”

Lives of service

Throughout the years, Diane says she’s done everything she can to help Nathan—including taking jobs with flexible hours so she can get Nathan to school or work each day and be there when he gets home. “Everything I do revolves around his schedule,” she says. “He is my life, and I love every minute.”

Diane says caring for someone who needs constant supervision can make it difficult to take breaks or do spontaneous things—but the Oldenburgs still do their best to carve out time to recharge and refresh, both individually and as a family. Dave and Diane’s friends know and love Nathan too, and often Nathan accompanies them when they go out. “He really likes going to restaurants with TVs, and he loves people watching,” says Diane. He also enjoys watching sporting events, listening to music, and going to church.

“Nathan’s been in church his whole life,” Diane says. “He loves to turn around in the pew and wave to everyone. He’s like the church greeter, and he always makes sure to shake the pastor’s hand.” Dave says it’s great to have such a welcoming environment at church. “No one has ever said he’s a distraction; they love to have Nathan there.”

Nathan also participates in Worship at the Cross, a simplified worship service designed by Jesus Cares Ministries for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Many churches throughout the synod host Worship at the Cross services, and Dave and Diane helped start them in Fond du Lac (see sidebar).

My Christian Life Feb 2023
Nathan Oldenburg with his parents, Dave and Diane, and his three brothers and their families.

Passing it on

Helping organize worship services is just one of the ways the Oldenburgs are serving; they are also supporting family members and caregivers in the IDD community. “We got a lot of help on our way, and now we want to pass it forward,” Dave says. Over the years, he has served on the boards of many local and national organizations, including Jesus Cares Ministries, so he can connect with other families and help them get the answers and resources they need.

“In those early days, when we took Nathan to doctors, they told us they couldn’t do anything,” says Dave. “Then we fought through the school system, and they told us they could not do this or that. That’s when we decided that we’re going to continue to do as much as we can for Nathan and advocate for people like him.”

He says the best advice he can give to other families in the IDD community is to ask a lot of questions and never be afraid to speak up. “At first, we were so lost, so overwhelmed, and so isolated,” he says. “We did not know what to do or where to turn. But we got support from our family, friends, and church, and we learned that you can’t be afraid to talk to people and ask for help.”

Looking back at their journey, the Oldenburgs can see all the blessings God has given them—even when going through challenging times. “As a caregiver, you are under stress. You love that person and you want to oversee his care, and you’re doing a lot and giving a lot,” says Dave. “But then you realize that you are getting more than you’re giving. Life will always have its difficulties, but the Lord is telling us to trust.”

And in the end, Dave and Diane know that God chose them to be Nathan’s parents for a reason. “We have gone from ‘Why us?’ to ‘Why not us?’ ” says Diane. “We haven’t helped Nathan; he’s helped us. He taught us what unconditional love is, and he taught us patience. If you have a bad day, you just look at his smile, and it will bring you out of that bad mood. He’s just awesome.”

Dave agrees. “Nathan has given our life a purpose. We wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

View a video about the Oldenburg family created by Jesus Cares Ministries. 

Author: Alicia Neumann
Volume 110, Number 2
Issue: February 2023


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This entry is part 5 of 51 in the series my christian life

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