David Hirsch talks to Dave Elsinger a father of two children including an autistic son. Dave is a leader and missionary with Reach Global of the Evangelical Freee Church of America and he’s our guest on this Dad to Dad Podcast, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Dad to Dad 36 – Dave Elsinger, father of an autistic son and missionary at Reach Global.
Dave Elsinger: You know, when a doctor gives you a diagnosis, all he’s giving you is a snapshot of your child at that moment. They are growing. They are changing even with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. It doesn’t mean that they will always be the way you see them today.
Tom Couch: That’s Dave Elsinger, a father of two and leader and missionary with reach global. And he’s our guest today. On the dad to dad podcast. And here’s our host, a man who spent decades advocating for fathers David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the dad to dad podcast, fathers, mentoring, fathers of children with special needs presented by the Special Fathers Network.
This Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program.
Fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads, to find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org. And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group.
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Dave Elsinger: So let’s listen now to David Hirsch’s conversation with Special Father Dave Elsinger.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my friend, Dave Elsinger of Lakeville, Minnesota, a father of two and leader, as well as missionary with reach global, which is part of evangelical free church of America.
Dave, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Dave Elsinger: I’m glad to, it’s great to be with you.
David Hirsch: You and your wife Aksana have been married for 15 years and the proud parents of Lizzie tan and Steven 13, who has autism, let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up?
Tell me something about your family. I
Dave Elsinger: grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and I have one sister who’s two years younger than I am. And we, uh, very early in my growing up years, moved around the country as my dad was in retailing. So. We moved from Minnesota to st. Louis to Oklahoma city, to Mississippi and back to Minnesota for my high school years.
David Hirsch: That sounds like it might’ve been challenging, making new friends, saying goodbye to old friends, you know, as you’re growing
Dave Elsinger: up, it was very challenging to meet new kids and to get involved in things in school. But I’m glad that from my high school years, I was in Minnesota. So I had good experience there.
David Hirsch: great. So how would you describe your relationship with your dad?
Dave Elsinger: Uh, my dad is, uh, a fairly big guy and he, uh, always believed in hard work, as you can tell, we moved quite a bit. And so his job was very important that he could provide for our family. But I learned from him early on as that, uh, he made time to get involved in my life and in my sister’s life.
And I really appreciate that. He helped. With boy Scouts, uh, camping, fishing, different sporting events. So I really appreciate that about my dad.
David Hirsch: Excellent. And what did your dad do again? You mentioned he was in business.
Dave Elsinger: Yeah. He works in retailing, uh, as a manager and worked for, uh, what eventually became the target corporation,
David Hirsch: which is headquartered there in Minnesota.
Right? Correct. So, uh, what does your sister do today?
Dave Elsinger: My sister is a, a mom and a housewife and she lives about 20 minutes away from us.
David Hirsch: Does she also have kids?
Dave Elsinger: She has two kids.
David Hirsch: So your uncle Dave that’s right. Okay. Is there any thought that comes to mind or lesson that you learned from your dad or observing what your dad did in addition to the good work ethic that he displayed?
Dave Elsinger: I learned from my dad, the value of serving other people. Despite difficulty and just the amount of time that it costs him to serve in the community. He worked with, uh, people who were coming from overseas, uh, teaching them English at the university of Minnesota. And he’s, uh, volunteered also at various charitable organizations.
Helping people to move to the U S helping them find different items for their homes. There’s a charity in the twin cities called bridging, and he’s been a volunteer there for many years. He also works as a mentor for people starting small businesses through a group called score.
David Hirsch: So it sounds like he’s been very involved in the community.
In addition to being, if you all the business person that he was as well.
Dave Elsinger: Yes, he has
David Hirsch: been. And what a great role model. Your grandpa’s I’m wondering what role do they play on your dad’s side and then on your mom’s
Dave Elsinger: side? Well, my father’s dad was deceased before I was even born, and I know he had a close relationship with his, his dad.
My also understand that his father was very strict with him and that my dad was the youngest and had it at times, strange relationship with his dad. Hmm. So it’s amazing to me that he could be so caring to me and my sister coming from his own strange relationship with his dad.
David Hirsch: Well, sometimes the pendulum swings one way and then it swings back the other way.
So maybe you’ve been the beneficiary of that experience that he had. But what’s sort of interesting is I’m thinking about being a dad to our five kids who are now young adults, 21 to 29. And it seems like we weren’t as rigid. With the younger kids, as we were with the older ones, we had black and white ways of parenting when we first became parents.
And then I think we just got worn down Dave over the years. So by the time the baby comes along, it’s just like a, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. Go ahead and run around in the neighborhood with, uh, knives and axes and things like,
Dave Elsinger: well, I don’t know if we did that with our youngest, but it’s certainly true that we become a little bit more lax, I guess, in our parenting.
David Hirsch: open minded, I think. So how about, um, on your mom’s side, uh, your grandpa on your mom’s side?
Dave Elsinger: My mom’s dad was very, uh, caring, very relational. And as a grandfather, to me, he was very, um, involved in my growing up years with both me and my sister. So he, uh, would come to various events that we were involved in.
They lived in Michigan, we lived in Minnesota, but they were. Often here visiting. And so we, uh, had the benefit of having them involved in many of the activities and things that we did. They were always, and my grandfather especially was a, uh, kind of like our cheerleader, always giving us the benefit of his advice and his love.
David Hirsch: That’s a wonderful grandfathers can play such an instrumental role in young people’s lives. And like you said, you got to know one, but not the other, just because not everybody has the beneficiary of having grandparents. Is there anybody else that served as a father figure while you were growing up as a younger person or maybe as a young adult for that matter?
Dave Elsinger: Um, when I was getting my education in, in seminary, out in the New York area, I did an internship at a church in Brooklyn, New York, and the interim pastor, there was very influential and he, uh, was very supportive and helpful to me as I was. Looking at ministry and would encourage me and pray for me. And now he is at home with the Lord.
And so, uh, I reflect on those times that we had together and how encouraged me and helped me to stay on track. That’s
David Hirsch: fabulous. So from an education standpoint, I understand that you went to Michigan state. Um,
Dave Elsinger: actually I, uh, finished my degree at Michigan state and I worked as an engineer for. About 12 years and then, uh, felt the call to going into full time ministry.
So I went to seminary at night at Alliance, theological seminary in Nyack, New York. That’s when I had my internship in Brooklyn at a church, but my hope was to go into missions full time after that, not to go into church pastoral ministry. So I ended up going to Ukraine with the. Evangelical free church of America mission.
At the time, I
David Hirsch: was sort of curious to know how you met Asana.
Dave Elsinger: That’s a good story. Um, I had arrived in Ukraine in this fall of 2001 and had with getting to know a number of different people. And if you’d remember, nine 11 was a very significant date and it was just the week before nine 11. I had gone to a get together of missionaries.
And, uh, there was this lady who was with campus crusade for Christ named Oksana chef Chenko. And I started talking with her at this, get together of missionaries and was very interested and I was hoping I would get to know her more. And then the next week came and it was the 11th of September. And we were both invited to a, a friend’s home, a missionary’s home.
For dinner later, of course we found out on CNN that the twin towers had been attacked and later found out that, uh, uh, groups of people coming from the U S to teach English as a second language couldn’t come. And, uh, would I be interested in helping the campus crusade people in Ukraine to be a native English speaker and teacher for these outreaches they were doing in Kiev?
David Hirsch: Oh my gosh.
Dave Elsinger: So she called me and asked if I would be willing to do that. And I asked her, okay. But, uh, I said, but are you going to be there? Because I was hoping to get to know her too. And she said, well, I’m not planning on it, but I could be there, I suppose. So we got to know each other through that, that time period.
And eventually I thought, well, you know, what’s fair is fair here. I’m going to ask her to help me translate because I was doing some English outreach in the area of the city that I lived in. And she agreed. And so from that, we started doing some ministry together and, uh, I won’t go through all the details, but within about a year’s time, we were engaged and in another year we were married.
David Hirsch: Wow. That’s fabulous. So is she from Ukraine or not?
Dave Elsinger: She is Ukrainian. Yeah. She’s from, uh, Eastern part of Ukraine, but was working with campus crusade as a national missionary in Kiev, the capital. Got it.
David Hirsch: And did she speak English or did he speak Ukrainian or how did you communicate?
Dave Elsinger: She speaks, she spoke and speaks English and actually speaks English a lot better than I can speak Russian, which has her native language.
David Hirsch: Got it. Well, thanks for sharing. I love the story. So just to take a step back just a bit, your work experience included working for Nabisco general foods craft. From the early nineties to the year 2001. And then, um, you started with the missions work with EFCA and then went on to be a learning resources coordinator.
And then now international crisis response. Could you just give me a sense for the type of work that you’ve been doing with the
Dave Elsinger: FCA? Right. Well, I’ve been, was working in Ukraine, obviously making relationships, teaching English and talking with people about Jesus Christ. And working with local churches over there.
And when we came back to help our son, Steven, which we’ll talk about, I got involved in training and helping new missionaries to get to the field, helping them to understand what they would be facing. So I was doing learning and development as well as training of our new staff and veteran staff. And then in the last year and a half, I’ve gotten involved in something called crisis response.
So things like hurricane Harvey, hurricane Florence was just happened out on the East coast. The group I’m involved in, comes into the community where there’s the local church has asked for help. And, uh, we have a partnership with them to help them reach the community by restoring homes, but more importantly, helping share the love of God with these people who have lost everything.
David Hirsch: No, that’s fabulous. What I think about when I’m listening to what you’re saying, it’s more about the physical structures and the material things, but it’s about rebuilding community.
Dave Elsinger: Yes. It’s much more about having a relationship with people, listening to their stories, and then also sharing God’s love with them and helping the local church to do that.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So let’s talk about the special needs community, um, on a personal level and then beyond. Before Steven’s diagnosis with autism. Did you or Isana have any connections to the special needs community?
Dave Elsinger: We had friends, uh, who had children who had special needs. Uh, I’ve known people over the years who have special needs friends of mine, but we had no connection in our families to anyone that had a disability or cognitive or physical at all before that time.
David Hirsch: So. What was your first reaction? If you can remember way back when, you know, 10 plus years ago upon learning about Stephen’s diagnosis with autism?
Dave Elsinger: Well, first of all, I had no idea what autism was. I guess the term that the pediatrician and Kiev used with us who kind of gave us that preliminary diagnosis.
It wasn’t autism. That was the word he used. It was a different word about a complete. Breakdown of the cognitive understanding. It was a sensory type of a disorder and whatever he used, but eventually he used the word autism and even using the word autism did not ring a bell to me, exactly what he was facing.
I knew autism was something that Dustin Hoffman’s character had in brain man. Right. And so immediately my thoughts went to that and you know, and how horrible that would be once I kind of understood what that was, what autism was. I was just kind of numb. I had no idea what that meant and what that could mean for our son, because he didn’t show any signs directly to me of what autism was, what I thought autism was.
Uh, it wasn’t until we got back to the U S to have him completely diagnosed and talking to some other professionals that I could really understand what Steven was facing and what we were facing. And so I was just at first. Once the word hit me. I was, I was just like, I have no idea what to do, Lord. I need your help.
Uh, I don’t have, I don’t have any clue of what we’re going to do to help our son. And it was very difficult. I can
David Hirsch: only imagine. So how old was Steven at the time of the diagnosis?
Dave Elsinger: We got him diagnosed at about, I’d say 18, 19 months. He had a preliminary diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, and we had no idea whether that was high functioning.
Middle functioning, low functioning, whatever the, uh, medical terminology was at the time, there was no way to know what that would look like and what that would mean.
David Hirsch: Okay. So was there any type of advice that you received early on that helped you have a better understanding or appreciation for the road ahead?
Dave Elsinger: One thing that really helped us at least helped me, I would say, and I think helped Exxon as well. Was we had another, a couple in our organization who had a son who had a very similar diagnosis to ours. And their son is probably, I say 12 years older than our son. And at the time our member care staff got us in touch with this couple and they will also live in Minnesota.
So we met for lunch. Midway between where their home is in our home. They live in Southern Minnesota and we met and we were talking. And one of the things the dad said to me, always stuck with me until this day was that, you know, when a doctor gives you a diagnosis, all he’s giving you or she is giving you is a snapshot of your child.
At that moment, it doesn’t mean that they will always be the way you see them today. They are growing. They are changing even with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. That doesn’t mean that they are locked into some Hollywood version that you see of what a person with autism looks like or what Hollywood thinks they look like.
Uh, everybody’s an individual. Everybody is made by God with strengths and with, with struggles. And so that really helped me. To understand that this wasn’t a life sentence of terrible, horrible suffering for my son. And that gave me hope,
David Hirsch: you know, what? That’s critical advice, especially early on to at least hear that maybe not fully appreciate or understand it, but, you know, acknowledge that, you know, it’s, it’s going to change.
And optimally, not in every case for the better right. Other dads who are involved with the network have said, you know, my son who might be 28 today, isn’t the same person. He was a year ago at 27. Probably not the person who was at age 25 and beyond. Right. So, um, I think you just have to maybe live by faith a little bit, if not entirely,
Dave Elsinger: entirely.
I think at that time, because. In my estimate, a lot of the professionals, not all, but a lot of the professionals out there in the, uh, the areas of psychology, a developmental psychology pediatricians, they mean, well, they hope for the best, but they don’t want to lead the parent on. And so they, they may say things like your son or your daughter will always struggle with this, or we’ll always have that prepare yourself, you know?
And so it really. Her to hear those kinds of things and having someone, another dad who’s been down the road, especially one who has hope in in God to me was invaluable because you could really see, even though this man had been through a lot and was still struggling, he had real hope and that was infectious.
And that really helped raise my spirit to realize this wasn’t something that was going to completely and utterly, uh, Change my hope for the future for my son. Yeah. I mean, there were some things that I had to come to grips with and I have, but it still gives me hope to realize that my son is not finished and God isn’t finished with him yet.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. And did you stay in contact with this other fellow?
Dave Elsinger: Yes, we are still in contact.
David Hirsch: So he has been a mentor of yours for better part of a decade or more now?
Dave Elsinger: Yeah, he has. Okay,
David Hirsch: well, let’s be sure to talk to them about the special father’s network since he’s already doing this,
Dave Elsinger: we will.
David Hirsch: Excellent. So, um, what were some of the more important decisions looking back that you and Exxon made raising two children, including one with special needs?
Dave Elsinger: Well, uh, I think one of the things is that we want to promote both of our kids’ strengths. We want to find the strengths that they do have and celebrate those strengths, whatever those are.
If for our daughter, uh, she is very. Much into art and, uh, she’s, uh, into music as well as our son. And so we celebrate those things and we try to build on their, her strengths the same way with Steven. Steven is very gifted musically. He at a very early age, we found out that he could. Play the piano by listening to music, he could duplicate almost completely songs.
He would hear on the radio or on television, just on his little kitty piano. And this has developed into him becoming a junior composer and winning national contests.
So whatever your child has, whatever gifts they have, it could be just making pretty pictures, whatever they have, you want to encourage them to develop those gifts and those talents. And so we’ve, we’ve done that with both of our kids and both of them are involved in music competitively as well as just for fun.
Yeah. I would just, we’ve made that determination to help them in whatever strengths they have to. Maximize those strengths and to use them to serve others.
David Hirsch: I love that story. And what comes to mind is there’s very few people that can play music by ear, right. We’re taught to read music and then apply it.
So it is really a gift. If you’re able to repeat something by just your hearing senses, I’m sort of curious now that it sounds like it is hearing is, you know, at an exceptionally high level. Um, is he verbal or nonverbal?
Dave Elsinger: He’s verbal.
David Hirsch: Okay. So he’s able to communicate in a more traditional way. That’s not an obstacle that you’ve experienced
Dave Elsinger: early on.
He had some struggles, but, uh, he became, I would say almost overly verbal and you couldn’t get him to stop. But I would share though that our daughter at a very early age was showing signs of the same symptoms that Steven had as a baby. And she, um, I would say it was about nine months or so. Was showing similar symptoms to Steven.
And we had her diagnosed with a, kind of like an autism spectrum disorder, but it was not completely a hundred percent. And so we did get her started in early intervention. And within 12 months time after starting that we saw her change 180 degrees through early intervention therapy and also through much prayer.
Uh, we had our church. Leaders come in and pray for her. Pray over her. We saw just within those 12 months through the therapy and the prayers of many people, uh, she became completely social and just completely different than she had been. It was almost like she was deaf from age nine months til about, uh, 14 months.
And we believe that God did something in her life.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, that’s wonderful. And I think it underscores the importance of. Uh, reaching out, getting services.
Dave Elsinger: Yes.
David Hirsch: Not being in denial or thinking, Oh, it’ll just get better on its own. Let’s just wait and see. Great. Err, on the side of engaging, getting resources that you’re entitled to, certainly if they’re paid for why wouldn’t you and even if you have to pay for them, err, on the side of.
You know, seeking out those resources. So you don’t look back and think coulda, woulda, shoulda, maybe things would’ve been different if we had engaged sooner.
Dave Elsinger: Yeah. And I’ve known of dads and have parents who, from our perspective, we clearly now of being in experience, we clearly see that there’s something that’s going on there cognitively or developmentally.
So if they would come to us, we would say, you know, Hey, you really should start these things. And sometimes you see that denial because they don’t want to. You know, go down that path or it’s very difficult and what they’re doing those in many cases, they may be prolonging getting help for their child, which is not the thing to do.
David Hirsch: you could say literally further handicapping their child yes. By not getting those resources,
Dave Elsinger: right? Yes.
David Hirsch: So I’m not to focus on the nugget of it, but I’m wondering what are some of the bigger challenges that you and Exxon have encountered?
Dave Elsinger: I think the biggest, some of the biggest challenges is seeing them interact with peers, especially our son, because of his situation with autism.
He does not pick up on nonverbal cues very well. So he does something called that he will get into whatever he’s involved in like music or, uh, memorizing facts about things. And thinking, I guess that everyone is, is interested, especially his peers and what he’s interested in and rambling and going on and on about a Beethoven or Bach or Tyrannosaurus Rex or whatever it was as he was, he’d been growing up and, you know, he can quote and he can give you all of the facts about the life and death of a composer from, you know, the 18th century.
But that’s not what his peers are into. Alright. There’s peers are into like baseball or football or hockey and seeing that disconnect between some of his peers and between him realizing he’s not picking up the fact that they’re not as interested in those things. That’s really hard to see at times.
Yeah. Well, it
David Hirsch: sounds like he’s taking a deep dive, really immersing himself in something just for the sheer enjoyment of it. And you know, you’re right. You know, that might seem. Uh, socially, right? Because they can’t relate, but they’re not, um, processing that level of information in such a short period of time, which is a gift on one hand, right.
Who, who can really do that. It’s such a young age. Um, but, uh, it, it just seems to stand out. Right. I could see how that would be difficult. It is,
Dave Elsinger: it is difficult and there are other social cues and things. And one of the things that kids with ASD struggle with is something called theory of the mind, where it’s hard for them to understand.
The social needs of others or how other people look at things because it kind of all revolves around what they think and trying to help Steven, uh, our son, especially to broaden that say, you know, Hey, what, what would other people think? You know, what’s, what’s their perspective on what you think is so interesting?
Well, they probably don’t find it real interesting. I said, well, yeah, they probably don’t. So maybe when you have your friend over, you could try what they like to do. Well, you know, I don’t know. So you’ve seen, of course we’ve seen, of course, is that, yeah, he’s got some friends, but the friends tend to be, you know, mostly into what he’s into.
And I understand that can happen with any kids, but it’s, it seems more pronounced sometimes too to the parents, I guess. And that’s a, that’s still a struggle that we see.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I think what I hear you also saying, Dave, is that, you know, you want him to interact with as many different people as you can mainstream to the full extent possible.
So he’s gonna over time, hopefully over time, pick up on some of these social cues, make the adjustments, you know, socially, and it won’t be a stark contrast as the years and decades go by. Yup.
Dave Elsinger: Yup. And we’re also seeing him. And, uh, even though it’s hard for him getting an involved in more sports at school, now that he’s in eighth grade and he’s trying some flag football and some floor hockey and other things.
And I, I know he’ll never be good at them, but the main thing is, is that it’s the social piece it’s learning to get along with other kids. Uh, he’s also on a robotics team at school and, uh, You know, there’s lots of arguments and discussions, and I think that’s all good for him because it, it expands his boundaries and helps him to understand how to get along with people.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. So what impact has Steven situation had on Lizzie as well as the rest of your family?
Dave Elsinger: Well, that’s a, that’s an ongoing struggle we have is how our son and daughter get along or don’t get along. Our daughter is very social and she is very. Focused on her friends and she wants to get involved in things only because her friends are involved in them.
That’s partially being a girl, of course, but that’s also just who she is. She is a, just a kid who, who loves doing things with her friends. But on the other hand, she also has struggled with anxiety. And we’ve been getting help for her in that area, but it continues to be a struggle for her is just feeling anxious about different things and trying things and just, uh, phobias in a way that she’s been struggling with.
And, uh, a lot of times she’s doesn’t understand, uh, how her, how her brother has struggles and he doesn’t understand her struggles. But between both of them, to be honest, it’s been, it’s been difficult, uh, especially as they’ve gotten older and without getting into all the details about our daughter, we are getting, uh, some counseling and some, uh, some help for her as
David Hirsch: well as she crossed over that bridge where, well she’s younger.
She’s the big sister.
Dave Elsinger: In some ways. Yeah. Uh, she realizes that she has to help her brother navigate, or she does help her brother navigate social situations that he doesn’t understand, but we’ve never put more emphasis on Steven than we have on our daughter. We have been very balanced in that. Uh, as I mentioned, she also was showing signs of a pervasive developmental disorder at an early age.
So we had her in early behavioral therapy as well. So we’ve, we put equal attention on both of our kids and on their activities. But what she’s struggling with right now is this anxiety is something that I think is driving a lot of her anger towards her brother and towards both her mom and me, we’ve continued to love her and support her, where she’s involved in many different things at church and at school and has lots of friends, but this is one area that.
We need prayer in how to help her find her place as well as to deal with this anxiety that’s been coming out recently.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I suspect, like you said earlier, that part of it is just being a young girl growing up in a culture like we have with the social pressure that, you know, is just typical social pressure.
And some of it might be as a result of having a brother who, you know, just doesn’t understand, right. The same things that she might add a little bit younger age. And, uh, I need to sort of, you know, make that transition and it’s not a straight line. Right. It sounds like it’s been up and down, up and down and you know, you’re on an emotional roller coaster someday.
Dave Elsinger: Very much so. Yes.
David Hirsch: So, uh, I’m curious, what supporting organizations have you relied on for Steven’s benefit, whether it’s autism now or a special Olympics, et cetera?
Dave Elsinger: Well, the organizations we got involved with, some of them are just in the twin cities, Minneapolis and st. Paul. Early on. We were getting some services at a place called Frazier that involved our son taking a van to the Northern side of the twin cities.
When he was just about three or four years old, it was very difficult. Uh, but then we found a services here in Lakeville area where we were doing some ABA therapy with him and our daughter. Then we’ve gotten involved also with a group called Johnny and friends, which is a, uh, a Christian. Ministry group that helps families with special needs kids.
There’s also a group here. It’s an non-religious organization called the pacer center, which is an advocacy group for parents of special needs kids. And it’s located right here in Bloomington, Minnesota.
David Hirsch: Wonderful. You mentioned he’s athletic. He plays flag football. And for hockey, has he participated in special Olympics or anything like that?
Dave Elsinger: He’s not participated in special Olympics, but, uh, he’s been involved in, uh, running, uh, there’s a, anti-bullying run that the pacer center organizes here every year. He and his mom. And he’s also gotten involved in, uh, running in different events here around the twin cities, but not special needs related events.
So he loves doing cross country running. And that kind of thing.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So were there some other things that you did to help Steven along the way? There
Dave Elsinger: were different therapies that we had him involved in listening therapy to help him get over the sensitivity to loud noise, which has really helped him.
Um, when he was just a little kid, uh, three or four or five, he was in different feeding therapy. To get him to eat solid food. At first, he would need any solid food when he was a baby and his diet was very restricted. He also had some allergic reactions when he was just a, a little little kid. And so we had to have him on a nebulizer for awhile, and then eventually his system was able to handle the different allergens in the environment.
We’ve had him on allergy drops and meds for quite a while. He’s still on them and just various, uh, Ways to improve his immune system over the years, through different vitamins and supplements for a while. He was gluten free, but since has been able to tolerate gluten, which he likes that was bread and different cookies and things like that.
But it’s not good for him in other ways. Yeah. So we’ve, we’ve tried various therapies, uh, and different, um, social skills groups he’s been involved in, in the community to try to, again, help him understand. How to get involved with other kids and how to make friends. It really is an uphill struggle. And I think it will continue to be a struggle just to make friends and to find kids that have a similar interest and to try new things.
It’s something that’s difficult for him. If, if another kid isn’t interested in music, the way he is, you know, to, for him to try new things. So. Throughout his teen years, I assume he’ll be continuing to try to find ways to help him expand his horizons and to get to know others and their interests.
David Hirsch: That’s great.
So let’s talk about the special needs beyond your personal experience. You made reference to Johnny and friends, this amazing organization that does work, not only here in the U S but overseas. Could you tell our listeners a little bit more about Johnny and friends?
Dave Elsinger: Yeah. As I mentioned, Johnny and friends is an organization that.
Out of California and they have offices and areas all around the States here, the Minneapolis area office here, or Minnesota office services, not only Minnesota, but also North and South Dakota. I believe Iowa and Wisconsin are part of Wisconsin. And we’ve gotten to know the director, Judy Clark and her husband Daryl over the years and have served with them at the family retreats.
They have every summer. Up in Northern Minnesota and Detroit lakes, they have a camp. That’s a young life camp that they rent for a week. And, uh, families with kids can apply to come up to that. We’ve served though as a family up there for, I think 40 years now as volunteers, uh, they call them, uh, short term missionaries.
STMs. And so what we would do as a family is we would kind of split up Steven and I would be with maybe a young man and his parents, and then Lizzy and my wife Oxana would be with a young girl and her parents to try to help them have a good time. So we would be with the child during the day and help the child to have fun at the various adapted activities.
And then the parents would have chance to go in and hear a sermon maybe, and have a be involved in a mom’s group or a dads group and get encouragement from other parents. And then they would have evening activities for the whole family. And it would culminate at the end of the week in a talent show for all the kids and a, a, an a worship time.
So we’ve done that for, I think the last four years now, we’ve also gotten involved my wife, especially. And Johnny and friends has a overseas version of this family retreat being from Ukraine. She’s gotten involved in the family retreat in Ukraine. So for the last, I think two years, she’s gone over there to be involved in a family retreat in Western Ukraine with a Ukrainian church that Johnny and friends is partnering with.
And so that’s helping families overseas to bring their special needs kids to this event and actually have a break. And of course, uh, Cross-culturally disabilities understood sometimes very much differently in a place like Ukraine. It’s only recently that the government and people in general have been more open to understanding that people with disabilities, especially children deserve to, to have a, a time of fun and relaxation and that they don’t need to hide behind, uh, walls and be kept out of sight of the public.
This is something that’s very much new. And it’s a way to communicate. God’s love to the families as well as to the society. Yeah.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s very powerful. Thank you for sharing because we’re a little bit more advanced than many countries around the world, as it relates to disability rights, you know, we’re the epicenter for things like special Olympics and converting all of our buildings and restaurants and public governmental buildings to provide equal access to people who have disabilities wheelchairs as an example.
You know, I can only imagine what this looks like in some of these countries overseas, whether it’s in Europe or Russia or, you know, beyond for that matter. So when I was in Agoura Hills a few weeks back and had a chance to visit Johnny and friends, their international headquarters and interact with Steve Bundy and Doug Maza, one of the other programs that I was like, Oh my gosh, what an impactful program.
And I’m wondering if it’s also there in Minnesota. To do with their wheels for the world program.
Dave Elsinger: Yes, we, we also are involved here in Minnesota with wheels to the world. There’s a, a big desire here to, to have, uh, different organizations and individuals to donate used wheelchairs, which will then be refurbished and sent overseas.
I don’t remember exactly what the goal is, how many thousands of wheelchairs that they want to have collected over the next. Three or four years to then have them refurbished and sent overseas. But yes, this wheels for the world is very much a desire here in Minnesota, as well as throughout the country in Johnny and friends.
And so, yes, we are involved in that as well.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So it wasn’t there a twist though, as far as who’s doing the refurbishing of these wheelchairs,
Dave Elsinger: From what I know. Yeah. A lot of the wheelchairs are being refurbished at a penitentiaries are around the country at various penitentiaries where they, the prisoners are given an opportunity to, uh, to serve and understand more about who are these wheelchairs going to?
Why are they necessary? What is Johnny and friends? What are they doing? Do these kids really need help and, and more about lungs. Like why would Johnny and friends do this? Oh, they believe that, uh, the Jesus Christ is God’s son and that he loves all people, including kids with disabilities and their families.
And so they understand more about Johnny and friends, the kids, what they’re doing to make an impact around the world is as they aren’t able to obviously leave where they’re spending their a third sentence, but they’ll also to, to understand God’s love for them. And so, yes, it’s a very powerful ministry.
David Hirsch: I really love that aspect of it. So it’s just so much more engaging and involved. It’s not just the wheelchairs, but we talked earlier about building community and getting people involved and helping them reconnect or to connect in a way that might not otherwise. So I’m thinking about advice generally, what are some of the more important takeaways that come to mind in reference to raising a child with differences?
Dave Elsinger: Well, for me, I think the number one takeaway is, is that. We all have strengths and we all have struggles. We all are made uniquely in God’s image. That means we have a soul. We have a mind, we have a body. And even though it’s been marred and messed up by the results of the fall and of sin, God has a plan for each one of us and he loves us each one of us just as we are just as he’s made us.
And when society tells you or tells you about your child, that they’re no good or they can’t make a difference and there’s nothing they have to offer. That’s not true. We have to hold onto that. And I’ve seen that even in the darkest times with our son, Steven, uh, when he was just little, even with our daughter, Lizzie, A smile.
It could be a laugh little things that indicated to me, there’s a person there. It’s not just a diagnosis. This is more, this is a real spiritual being that God has brought into the world through me and my wife. But there is value here because God said so. And even when the professionals and medical professionals and others leave you numb from their diagnosis or from their.
Prognosis of what the future holds don’t buy into that there is still much more about your child than, than even you, you can recognize. Um, again, uh, when you’re told that your child will never, or will always do X or we’ll never be able to do, Y don’t buy into that. I’ve seen God surprise me over and over again with my son, with my daughter.
And, and the other thing I would say is, is realize you’re not the only one on the road. There are lots of parents out there. Maybe you don’t know them right off the top of your head, but they’re out there and they’ve gone through similar things that you have gone through and you really need to reach out to those parents as I did, as we did, I should say with this family, when we came back to the U S that made a big difference in our perspective, on, you know, going through life with a kid with special needs, And then also expand your network.
It’s so invaluable to have a, a church family or a, uh, a group of people that you can go in and just let your hair down and just share what your struggles are and to have them pray for you and, and to encourage you and support you. I’m talking about beyond just your, your extended family, but a group in the community that you can, you can share your struggles with.
That’s so important to have. Uh, in addition to, of course, all the professionals who are therapists and doctors, uh, they’re helpful too, but, but honestly not as helpful as having someone to share your, your struggles and your fears and your joys with that’s so important. I think
David Hirsch: if I can paraphrase and you said that beautifully, um, don’t let the diagnosis be the defining aspect, be cautious of the words, never and always, right.
Those are like, Those should hit your antenna and be thinking, no, maybe that can’t be, that’s just not right. Realize that you’re not the only one going through some of these challenges and expand your network, uh, whether it’s through churches or what other groups are available to make sure that you’re part of a larger community.
Dave Elsinger: Yep, exactly.
David Hirsch: Very well said. So is there any advice that you can share with a dad or parents for that matter about helping a child with disabilities reach their full potential,
Dave Elsinger: you know, start with where their strengths are is what I would say. Find out what they like to do. If it’s drawing, if it’s singing, as they grow, as they develop and they will, uh, whatever you see or sense in them that they like to do.
And that that’s fun for them. Um, it may not seem like much at first, but focus on those things that, that bring them joy that they enjoy doing, and that make you smile to focus on those things. Not on the things that they can’t do. And then look for other parents and families who have kids with the same kind of likes and, and skills or gifts that your child has as they develop, and then try to get those, your kids together with your child together with that other child, whether it’s a play date or whether it’s just time together, just to get to know one another, whatever it would be, spend time with those families and those other kids and, and see what happens.
Allow them just to explore. I think that’s so important just to kind of go where that child leads and then trying to build on those strengths. At least that’s been my experience. I know every child is different. What’s one, a string for one may not be for another, but that’s okay because they’re all individually different and wonderfully and fearfully made.
So I would just go where, where they lead. I
David Hirsch: love it. I also think it’s like leadership training, not in the corporate sense, but in the family sense, which is part of your strengths and then try to compensate for something that might not be as drying. And that’s how you get ahead. Right. As opposed to trying to get somebody that can’t do something to be the best they’re ever going to be as average, right.
That’s not something to aspire to. It’s just right.
Dave Elsinger: And as, as we saw with our son, especially with his musical ability, we. Said, Hey, wow. This is amazing. Let’s just see where this leads and where it’s led for him as we’ve gotten lessons for him and helped him take that ability to hear and compose we’ve gotten music lessons for him.
He’s had to learn how to read notes and write great music. And, and so we’ve, we’ve built on that for our daughter, with her art and her she’s also loved singing. We’ve gotten a voice lessons for her. Music lessons for her. So it was building on those strengths and finding people who can come alongside and mentor and coach her and her brother in what they’re interested in that has been so important.
And then they have someone to look up to, um, as they, as they grow. Thank
David Hirsch: you. So why did you agree to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Dave Elsinger: Well, I think it’s what I’ve shared is that this other, a man. With such a strong influence for me. When we came back to the States to help our son, how he and his wife had had to leave their time in and work in Venezuela to come back to help their son and, um, kind of how, how he had journeyed and sharing his journey with me was so influential in my life and then having other mentors in my life as well.
Like I mentioned this a pastor when I was doing my internship in Brooklyn, who, uh, you know, poured into me. And encouraged me. I think that that was so important in my life that I would like to do the same for others.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, what a great role model they were to you and what a great role model you’ll be to so many others.
So thanks for being on board. Let’s give a special shout out to our friends at Johnny and friends for putting us in contact with one another. They just do some amazing work. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Dave Elsinger: I think I’ve said it pretty much. Uh, you know, don’t give up on your. On your kids.
And remember that God has made them who they are, even with the struggles, even with the, uh, special needs. They have, uh, they are special kids. Every kid has a special kid. And, and just again, remember that, um, a diagnosis, not a life sentence and that, uh, every kid is individual and is loved and, uh, is worth it’s worth giving it your all
David Hirsch: well said.
If somebody wants to get information on the angelical free church of America, Johnny and friends, maybe get plugged into a Johnny and friends, local family retreat, or just contact you. Where would they go?
Dave Elsinger: Uh, they could reach me at my email address. David.elSinger@efca.org, or they could go if they wanted to get involved in Johnny and friends do just a search on Johnny and friends.
That’s fabulous. And they would get to the Johnny and friends website.
David Hirsch: Excellent. Dave, thank you for taking the time and many insights as reminder, Dave is just one of the dads. Who’s agreed to be a mentor father as part of the special fathers network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs.
If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21st century dads that, or please be sure to listen to the Special Fathers Network podcast interviews and share with family and friends.
Dave. Thanks again.
Dave Elsinger: You’re welcome.
Tom Couch: And thanks for listening to the dad to dad, podcast, fathers, mentoring, fathers of kids with special needs presented by the Special Fathers Network. The special fathers network is a dad to dad mentoring program. Fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation.
It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
And if you’re a
David Hirsch: dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com groups and search dad to dad.
Tom Couch: And again, to find out more about the Special Father’s Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org, 21stcenturydads.org.
Thanks for listening.