At five years of age, Jodi discovered ‘the most beautiful language’ – signing for the deaf. Her father, a pastor, had decided to introduce deaf education to the congregation. Fascinated from day one, Jodi began to learn to sign.
“I was always drawn to it, says Jodi, and God used my love of it to propel me to where I am today.”
The Beginning of the Journey
Until Jodi was about six, her father served as a pastor in a two-point charge in Spruce Grove and Stoney Plain, AB. Then he took a teaching position at the Lutheran Seminary in Saskatoon. From as far back as she can remember Jodi always heard about Jesus, but a particular instance at a Backyard Bible Club comes vividly to mind. “After a lesson, we were asked if anyone wanted to make Jesus their forever friend, and I raised my hand.” And then, in grade 8, confirmation classes affirmed her faith in Jesus.
At 16, Jodi began volunteering at the RJD Williams School for the Deaf, and after she turned 18 she was approved as a ‘big sister, able to take her ‘little sister’ off the premises for meals and outings. She was invited to teach Bible stories and do activities with a class once a week. These were wonderful opportunities to use her signing and develop her skills working with children.
From as early as grade one, Jodi knew she wanted a career in deaf education, so after Grade 12, in 1983, she applied to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Disappointment followed before the semester was due to begin – the Deaf Education program had been cancelled. The school counsellor suggested Special Education and she enrolled in Elementary Education with a Special Education component, hoping that a course or two pertaining to Deaf Education might be added along the way.
While in university Jodi met David, an Engineering student. They both attended the IVCF group on Campus. David had been asked to sing at an upcoming meeting, and he overheard that Jodi played the piano. He called and asked her to accompany him and this was the beginning of a friendship that turned into love.
The Placement that Changed Jodi’s Heart
On the way to graduation several practicums were mandatory and Jodi travelled from city to town completing these that each added to her experience working with children and adults with various disabilities. Of all the placements, her first one stands out because God used it to change her heart.
It didn’t begin well. It was a 3-week experience in a group home. All the residents were non-verbal and their disabilities substantial. She quickly discovered that her job was to wipe drool from people’s faces, 8 hours every day. “I don’t want to do this,” 18-year old Jodi sobbed within. This was a far cry from the beautiful signing she had envisioned herself doing. But God is a God of transformation and He began to do His work. “He opened my eyes to see that everyone is His creation, and everyone has beauty within. He changed my attitude and filled me with absolute love for them.” This God-given attitude of love is at the foundation of her service and ministries.
Teaching Kids with Special Needs
While still at university Jodi felt led to apply to Capernwray for Bible college and after her second year at UofS, she left for Capernwray’s Austrian Campus and was gone for 6 months. Shortly after her return, David proposed and they got married that summer in 1986. An elementary school hired Jodi to teach before her degree was in hand. She had completed all course work and obtained her degree in Special Education some months later. David had graduated two years before and was also working.
Her first full-time position was in a rural school where she taught 31 Kindergartners, and the Special Education program on alternate days. In 1988 they left Saskatoon and moved to Calgary where David had a new job waiting. Jodi found a teaching position at a private school and also had charge of the school’s Special Ed classes. As the children moved through the grades Jodi moved along with them, teaching the same students through grades 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Their move to Calgary necessitated a search for a new church home. They settled on Centre Street Church and before long were team teaching grade twos in Sunday School. At the beginning of the year, there were two children with special needs in the class. By year’s end, there were five. Using the model from her school, Jodi and David moved up each year with the children in Sunday School. This enabled them to foster good relationships with the kids, and with their families. In 1995 Jodi was invited to join the CSC staff to oversee Christian Ed for kids. She obtained EMCC’s Certified Minister credential and became CSC’s Pastor of Special Needs and founded the church’s program still in operation today. At first, she worked with children – teaching, organizing field trips, arranging respites. She spoke at conferences and provided parent education. Eventually, the program expanded until it included all ages.
Raising a Child with Special Needs
Jodi and David are parents of four children, three sons (Jonathan, Kristopher, and Michael) and a daughter (Sherilyn), all born in Calgary, and adults now. Not all of Jodi’s experience with children with special needs has come from interaction with other people’s children. Their third son, Michael, was born with a rare condition called Hemi-hyperplasia. A trip to the Emergency Room to check out Michael’s swollen leg when he was a couple of months old, thrust them, without warning, into the world of parents of children with Special Needs. A subsequent trip to a Children’s Hospital confirmed the diagnosis, and they came away with a dismal prediction of what might lie ahead for their son. To meet the needs of the time, Jodi dropped back to part-time work and juggled raising 3 kids, hospital appointments, the household, and her job. Through it all, she embraced the challenge and experienced God’s provision. “God gave me grace and the strength to do what was necessary.”
“Hardest,” says Jodi, “was seeing my child suffering and in pain. God knew how it was all going to turn out, and I just had to trust.” She realized the importance of helping her child understand where God was in all of this. And she wrestled through how best to teach a child that God is in control, and how to bring God’s love into reality, despite difficult circumstances.
Her personal family experience has deepened her compassion for both children with Special Needs and their families. “It was a really important learning time and it changed how I relate to other parents”, she says. There is a difference between assisting from purely a knowledge level, and connecting on a heart level. “In my work, I come alongside families and am readily available to help with spiritual direction, and faith conversations.”
More About Jodi
After 20 years in Calgary, the Graff family moved to St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton, and Jodi continued to work in the Special Education field. About 10 years ago she began consulting on the side as a Professional Special Education Church Consultant, and for the past 7 years, she has been self-employed, devoting her working hours to helping congregations find effective ways to include people with disabilities in the life and ministry of their churches. “Everyone has gifts, having a disability doesn’t change that.”
In her spare time, Jodi enjoys putzing around in the garden, playing hymns or classical music, and reading. Trying new recipes, and preparing meals for others are other happy pursuits. The kids are another source of delight. Jonathan and Kristopher & his spouse Katie, live nearby and are working. Michael and Sherilyn are both living at home while attending university, Michael pursuing a career in physiotherapy, and Sherilyn, a nursing career. Seeing Michael today, no one would have an inkling of all the challenges he has encountered and overcome, giving all glory to God. Jodi and her husband David enjoy spending time together working on projects, traveling, or simply cuddling up to watch movies.
Jodi is available to provide coaching on Specialized Ministries & Special Needs
“I love to see everyone find their place in the faith community; a place of belonging, where each person is treated with proper dignity, and is able to be involved, among peers.” No matter the challenge, “there is always something someone can do. See a need, meet a need. God delights in providing for all His children.”
Jodi has a wealth of knowledge and experience and brings a fresh understanding of God’s heart for people with disabilities. She offers many enrichment opportunities, such as, how to facilitate inclusion; how to start and sustain a vibrant disability ministry; how to equip leaders and volunteers to serve alongside individuals with Special Needs; and, how to plan actionable next steps. Visit emccenrich.ca to learn more and connect with Jodi. She is available by phone, in person, and is willing to travel.