Language Barrier Doesn't Keep Special-Needs Moms from Connecting

A little more than a year ago, a friend took a few of my books to a special-needs family camp in Pelchi, Latvia. Partway through the week, she sent a text. "They love what you write about. Can you come next year to work with the moms?"

"YES!" I immediately texted back. "Count me in."

From that moment on, my resolve to attend remained firm. It was bolstered when the fundraiser organized by dear friends in my church Connection Group raised the exact amount needed to cover expenses. It grew stronger when someone donated money to purchase copies of A Different Dream for My Child for all the moms attending camp. The only time my resolve wavered was when the little naysayer voice in my head whispered, "How are you going to communicate? They speak Latvian. You speak English." But my friend, who was attending the camp again, said a translator would be assigned to us for the entire camp.

So I shushed my personal naysayer and packed my bags.

We made it to camp without a hitch. Our personal 24/7 translator, on the other hand, did not. Many people pitched in to fill the gap. A young woman with spina bifida who has attended the camp for several years and just graduated from the university in Riga with a degree in media communication. The pastor who has helped plan and grow the camp for several years. His wife and two teen-aged daughters.

Still, the language barrier made our morning support group slightly awkward.

Some things were lost in translation. Maybe because the moms' support group translator wasn't a mom, but a man. Maybe because I overcompensated by talking louder, smiling too much, and gesturing frantically. Maybe because my ability to put faces to names and to pronounce names correctly was an epic failure. Maybe because these Latvian moms had been twice burned by a culture that holds women in low regard and mothers who give birth to children with special needs even lower.

Whatever the reason was, we struggled along day after day.

Slowly our situation began to improve. I discovered that many of the moms understood English quite well if it was spoken slowly. Things improved further as we shared special needs mom stories and discovered our common experiences outweighed our differences. Their reserve melted completely on Thursday when my friend and I handed out cowboy hats and bandanas to moms and kids on Wild West Day. By Saturday, I arrived at our meeting place a half hour early and found every single mom already seated and ready to go. The translator wasn't there yet, so Katie, the mom who spoke the best English, did the honors.

That day, their questions didn't stop.

That day, they asked about baptism. That day, they wanted to know how to educate the general public about their children's strengths and weaknesses. That day, they brainstormed ideas about how to find or create places for their adult kids with special needs to work and socialize. That day, they developed a plan to lobby the Latvian minister of education about improving school services for their children.

That day, they used the language barrier to their advantage.

Katie turned to me and said, "Now we are going to talk about something you can't know about. I won't be translating for a while." Then another mom, Sandra, made an announcement. Everyone laughed and nodded. They talked some more. They laughed and nodded some more. Then Katie smiled and said, "Now I will translate for you again, Jolene."

They ran out of questions 2 1/2 hours later.

They took the remaining copies of my books asked me to write inscriptions, not to themselves, but to schools, to hospitals, to libraries, to friends, to churches. We took group pictures. Then, Katie (she's in yellow in the middle row) made a final announcement in Latvian which made them giggle and made me suspicious. What were they up to?

Sunday morning, my question was answered.

At the end of the Sunday service, the moms stood up. They all donned their cowboy hats and bandanas, formed two lines, cranked up the music, and performed a western line dance with Sandra (wearing orange, second from the left in the middle row in the photo below), the obvious ringleader, front and center.

Afterwards, Sandra and I found each other.

She took me by the shoulders.
I put my arms around her neck.
She smiled.
I smiled.
I hugged her.
She kissed me, first on one cheek and then the other.
She cried.
I cried.
We said everything that needed to be said without a word.

Absolutely nothing was lost in translation.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, 
but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8:26

Jolene Philo is the daughter of a disabled father and the mother of a child with special needs.  She’s the author of several books about special needs parenting, caregiving, special needs ministry and her most recent book about PTSD in children. More information about them can be found at the book page of her website. Her blog,, provides resources and encouragement for parents of kids with special needs.