So thrilled to be able to share Brenda Solomon’s testimony on the blog today. She has such an amazing story, from the sweet innocence of her childhood to meeting her husband, Lon, to raising her boys and having Jill. Brenda’s life has been marked by blessing, and by heartache. Yet God has answered her prayer to use Jill’s life in a mighty way!
Today is also the launch of my eBook, Sharp Sticks: Essays of Embarrassment and Reflections on Redemption. If you click on the title it will take you to the link on Amazon. Half of the author proceeds from the eBook will be donated to Jill’s House. Brenda’s testimony captures so well the vision and ministry of Jill’s House, and I know you will be blessed by reading her story.
I grew up in a Christian family in Hagerstown, Maryland where I was one of four children. We were a close-knit family and I saw my many aunts, uncles and cousins with great frequency. My mom stayed home with us, and my dad job’s allowed him to work Monday through Friday, and be home by five-thirty every evening. My parents loved being parents, and communicated that to us not only in their words, but also in their actions. Family was very important to them, as was their love for God. Our local church was the center of our social life and we were there every time the doors opened — whether it was for vacation Bible school, church camp, youth group, a Sunday morning or evening service, or Wednesday night prayer meeting.
My parents made sure we knew right from wrong, and that we based everything we did in life on the Word of God. We were never lavished with material things, but we lived a comfortable life. My mom made all my clothes and everyday our family would have a home-cooked dinner together. I remember when Hagerstown opened their very first McDonald’s. It was a very special occasion when our family went there for a meal. We didn’t have home computers, video games or all the technology capabilities and distractions we have today.
For our vacations every summer we went to a nearby lake and camped. I have great memories of hiking in the woods for firewood each day. I loved the smell of smoke and the crackling of wood from the campfire, and sitting around as a family laughing and roasting marshmallows after dinner. My parents provided a safe and loving environment for us to grow up in. We were taught to love the Lord with all our hearts and to love one another.
I learned Bible stories and memorized verses, we prayed at every meal, and we had regular family devotions together as a family. I accepted Christ at seven years old, and my dad was the one that walked down the aisle with me in a revival service at our church. I used to think how mundane my testimony was because I didn’t have a dramatic story of being saved out of a life of sin like my husband, Lon. But over the years I have come to realize how rich my testimony really is because God spared me from so much hurt and pain.
After I graduated from high school, I went off to Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland, and majored in Christian Education. That is where I met Lon, who was attending the Capitol Bible Seminary (the seminary is the graduate school of Washington Bible College). The seminary moved onto the Bible college campus in my junior year. I was very grateful I didn’t meet Lon until this point. I was this young, naive girl from a very conservative Christian family, and he was the outgoing, Jewish hippie guy that was still trying to figure out the do’s and don’ts of being a Christian. Lon intrigued me because there was this passion for Christ that he possessed that caught my attention. But his whole demeanor also made me a little nervous. He was still a little rough around the edges, if you know what I mean.
Lon asked me out and we started dating. We had only dated for a couple of months when Lon asked me to marry him. At first my parents weren’t sure what to make of Lon. He was very outspoken, and they were very conservative and laid back. I’m not sure they had ever met a Jewish person before, and so they were unsure about his background and what he would mean for me and my future. Over the years, my parents learned to love Lon very much, and began to see how much he truly loved the Lord, and how much he loved and cared for me. With those two things alone, Lon won their love and favor.
Over the years God has blessed Lon and me with four children: Jamie, Justin, Jon and Jill. I was also very blessed to be able to stay at home and raise my children, which I loved beyond words. Being a mother is a high calling and I saw it as a true ministry. To be able to mold and shape the life of another at the depth of a parent-child relationship was something I took very seriously. Just like my parents, I made sure the boys knew Scripture and also taught them that going to church was an important part of learning and growing in the Lord. But Lon and I made sure the boys knew that they were in need of a savior and they needed to personally make a decision to follow Christ themselves (which they each did early on in their lives). I truly loved being a mom and didn’t want to miss any activity that my boys were involved in. I was their biggest cheerleader on the sidelines of whatever sport they were playing, and made sure that they had whatever support they needed to be successful in life.
One day early in 1983 I remember talking with my parents and reminiscing about how good God had been to our family over the years. I made the comment to them, “…..but I wonder how we would respond if something negative or difficult would ever hit our family.” Our family was about to be tested big time, and we were about ready to see the depth of our faith.
In May of 1983, my youngest sister Sandy, who was 25 at the time, announced to our family she was expecting her first child. She was going to be the best mom. There wasn’t a kinder, sweeter person on the face of the earth. We were so ecstatic for Sandy and her husband, but our excitement was short-lived because in her second trimester she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Sandy only had a little over a year to live. It was a devastating time for our family. We had to hold on to every promise of God that we knew and draw strength from the Lord. Sandy passed away in September 1985 and left an eleven-month-old son and a grieving husband to raise him alone. It was a very difficult time for our family, but we leaned on the promises that we had invested our whole life and existence on. Promises like: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5); “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9); and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
Five years later, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and survived 15 years before she passed after a long hard fight. Once again we had to lean on the Lord and take every thought captive. I cried out to God for His strength because I knew that just like the Bible says, apart from Him I could do nothing.
Lon has a quote about an engine and caboose that reminds us how to get through no matter what we are facing: “The engine of our life needs to be God’s promises; the caboose of our life needs to be our feelings. Wherever the engine leads, the caboose will eventually follow.” This is the key to surviving, no matter what comes our way. The Christian life is a faith walk, and we can’t always see or understand what God is doing this side of heaven. We have to know the promises of God in His word before a crisis hits, so we can claim them with God’s help and strength. The Lord is our only hope, and He loves to show His power in our weakness. Without Him we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible.
In 1992, God sent us a baby girl. I was knocking on the door of 40 years old, and having another child wasn’t even a thought or possibility in our plans for our lives. God was about to take us on a journey where we went to an incomprehensible depth of human grief. I remember the day Jill was born. She was beautiful and perfect, and we were now in a pink utopia, where I felt so loved and blessed by this precious gift from God.
However, this feeling was short-lived, because Jill started having focal seizures at 3 months, and within several months they quickly escalated into full body grand mal seizures. Nothing can prepare any parent for what subsequently happened. Our fun, happy, active family was now experiencing the biggest crisis of our lives. How could this be happening to us? Why was God not stepping in and stopping this? Gone were the dinner times together, sitting on the sidelines of sport events, going to church together as a family. Our world was spinning out of control. We were devastated, grieving the death of dreams and the loss of time together as a family. I missed hurrying through homework so we could play board games together as a family. As Lon once described it, “the laughter had been sucked out of our family.”
This sad and exhausting time went on for years, day after day, daily seizures, sometimes multiple. The medications weren’t making any lasting difference. We thought if we just found the right medicine or found the right doctor, all this would stop. We couldn’t take Jill anywhere because we were always fearful of a medical emergency, ending with a trip to the ER. It was better if one parent went with the boys to an event or game and one parent stayed home with Jill.
I thought I would never smile again!
Our lives were marked by sleepless nights, demanding around the clock care, regular visits to the ER – all while caring for three other children. I could see no light at the end of the tunnel. Our boys and their worlds, our friendships, our life in church work, our own health and emotional well being — nothing went untouched from our tears, grief and exhaustion. Life went on like this way for several years. Everyday was just like the one before. I was missing time with my boys, missing time with my husband, and just missing life in general.
After living in this stress mode for 2 ½ years, I came to the end of myself . The pain of watching Jill suffer and the grief of seeing the dreams I had for my daughter slowly slipping away was overwhelming. It seemed like there was no way out, just an endless dark future of exhaustion and grief. One morning after Lon had left for the office and the boys had left for school, I was sitting on the floor and crying because Jill had just had another very hard seizure. I cried out to God in my desperation,
“Lord, I cannot go on any longer, you have to step in and do something. I have nothing physically or emotionally left to give. I just ask one thing – please use Jill’s life in a mighty way, because what we are living through is too painful to waste.”
It was later that very day that a woman called me. Her name was Mary. I didn’t know her. She was a stranger at the time. Later she would become one of my biggest cheerleaders on my journey. After talking on the phone for several hours (actually Mary mostly listened and I mostly cried), Mary was able to discern our biggest need. She recognized that we had an immediate need for what I know today as “respite.” Mary was the first to introduce me to the concept of respite. What it means is simply, “ a break” or a “gift of time.” Mary provided this by setting up an anonymous group that provided us with a caregiver and continually supported us in prayer.
Up until this point Lon and I had not slowed down. We were depleted. Once we got respite, we finally got some sleep, we spent much needed time with our other children, and we were able to make better decisions regarding Jill’s ongoing medical needs. Respite changed our lives and reenergized us so we could keep going. Respite enabled us to get a better perspective on our life as a whole. Respite gave us hope. It changed our lives. It truly did. However, I’m not saying that respite is a cure-all. In fact, things got worse before they got better. Jill almost passed away when she was 8 years old. However, respite did keep us afloat – it kept us from totally drowning, and I don’t know where we’d be today if we hadn’t gotten it. It wasn’t long before Lon and I realized that we wanted to help provide respite to other struggling families in our community.
Access Ministry was started in 1996 at McLean Bible Church, where my husband is senior pastor, with just four children in a Sunday School classroom. The next week it doubled in size. The need was much greater than we realized. Access Ministry has grown tremendously and today it serves several hundred families each month through various programs. We soon had a desire to expand the services we offered to include overnight respite, which led to Jill’s House being incorporated in 2003. Jill’s House is a short-term, overnight respite center located in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, for children with special needs ages 6-17. It opened in October 2010, and it is bigger and better than I ever imagined it would be.
The mission of Jill’s House is to be a safe haven to which parents can entrust their children, allowing the parents a time of rest.
But Jill’s House was not built just so that parents could get a break. We built Jill’s House because we wanted to build an exceptional place for these amazing children. Jill’s House has playrooms, art, music, sensory rooms, a gymnasium, playground and a therapy pool. They deserve a place they can call their own. I think of it as their own vacation spot. A place filled with fun activities, a lot of laughter and love. I want them to look forward to coming to Jill’s House.
Lon and I know that these children are near and dear to the heart of God. Jesus said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14a).
At Jill’s House we count it a privilege to serve these children and to love them with the unconditional love of God.
To the world Jill seems broken– she makes loud noises, and she is difficult to manage. Jill is 19 now, and while other kids her age have planned proms and picked colleges, Jill has the cognitive abilities of a one-year-old. She is non-verbal. She needs help bathing and dressing and doing her hair. She laughs, but cannot tell us why. When she is sick –sometimes a seizure is our first clue she isn’t feeling well.
She will always need someone with her 24-7 for the rest of her life.
But my daughter is not a burden – she is a blessing. Even though she cannot speak, God has used her to open my eyes and my heart to those in the disability community.
God has used Jill to inspire Access Ministry and now Jill’s House, which will help thousands of families in the D.C. area who are struggling with despair, exhaustion, and isolation. And I believe we really can build hope in these families’ lives. My daughter has taught me so much without ever saying a word. I’ve seen the world through her eyes and I am a better person because of it. She loves people in spite of themselves. She is brave, despite her circumstances. She is kind, despite her own pain. She smiles and my world seems brighter. I thank her for opening up my eyes to a world I never would’ve known otherwise.
Several months before Jill was born, God gave me a special verse in the Bible. I call it my life verse now. It is Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
And the Lord has been faithful to do just that.