Keeping Special Needs Children Safe

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This blog post is not a warm and fuzzy one. It is not comfortable, and it is not easy, but it is life-alteringly important. In light of the recent arrest of an Adventist school principal in my state for raping and molesting two young girls, I decided to tackle this very hard subject in respect to my special needs child. I do not like feeling helpless, and my job as mom to this special boy is to learn how to protect him.

My question going into this was simply this: How can I keep my child with special needs safe when it is so hard to keep ANY child safe?

This question catapulted me into a search that has lasted for days. I wanted answers, techniques, and strategies. I wanted to tackle this issue head on with my own special needs son, and I decided to share with you what I learned.

  1. Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse. It is our responsibility as adults to recognize, react and respond to signs of sexual abuse in all children. There are some specific do’s and don’ts that are especially helpful to keep children with special needs safe. (scanva.org)
  2. Although about 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men with developmental disabilities will be sexually molested by age 18, only three percent of their attackers go to jail (Hingsburger, Press Release CP Wire, May 2002). We have to stop living as though this does not happen. We have to be proactive in protecting our kids and teaching our kids how to protect themselves.
  3. Children and youth with disabilities are more at risk for sexual abuse and assault because of the following:
  • They often need assistance with personal care and hygiene

  • They may find it difficult to report abuse because of communication difficulties

  • They are often taught to comply with authority, which may make it harder for them to recognize abuse

  • They may be targeted because of their lower cognitive functioning

  • They may not be believed when they report abuse

  • Lack of knowledge about sexual issues

  • Misinformation about sex from peers, rather than books or other reliable sources

  • Lack of intellectual ability to understand the changes happening to their bodies

  • Misplaced trust in others due to increased dependence on others for assistance

  • A tendency to be overly compliant, particularly those children requiring a high level of support

  • Lack of assertiveness training or skills

  • An overprotected lifestyle and limited social contact

  • Lack of assertiveness training or skills

 

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Body Education

It’s not easy for us to tackle this issue, even with our neurotypical kids. Sex education, or as I refer to it, body education, acquaints our kids with the proper names for their body parts. This gives them the language with which to report abuse. Many people with disabilities who have had no body education or poor body education have failed to learn about love, warmth, caring, and pleasure, and therefore cannot distinguish that which is good from that which is wrong. This is dangerous in relation to abuse. They need to know what is good and healthy so that they can discriminate what is wrong and bad. Decide what is appropriate for your child to know and understand. Take into consideration their age, development, and environment, and then remember to revisit the issue often throughout every year. Repetition will help them remember what they learned and give them an opportunity to disclose if anything has happened to them.

 

  1. Think ahead — be proactive (“pre-teach”).

  2. Be concrete. Talk about the penis or vagina, not the birds and bees.

  3. Be consistent and repetitive about sexual safety.

  4. Find someone of the same gender and who is 100 percent safe to teach the basics of safety and hygiene.

  5. Be sure to address the social dimension of sexuality, as is appropriate.

  6. Strongly and positively reinforce all appropriate behavior.

  7. Redirect inappropriate behaviors. For example, if a child is likely to masturbate in public, give him something to carry or hold, etc.

Some of the documented benefits of body education for young people with an intellectual disability:

  • Increased social skills

  • Improved assertiveness

  • Greater independence

  • An ability to take greater responsibility for their sexuality

  • Reduced risk of sexual abuse, STIs, and unintended pregnancy

  • The language to report an incidence of abuse

  • Changes to behavior, such as adopting more acceptable expressions of sexuality

  • Healthier choices

  • Less chance of risk-taking behaviours

(betterhealth.vic.gov.au)

Here are some resources for easy to understand body education:

http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/healthybodies/boys.html

http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/healthybodies/girls.html

The Care and Keeping of You, Book 1 (ages 8+)

The Care and Keeping of You, Book 2 (ages 10+)

The Boy’s Body Book (ages 10+)

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Privacy, Personal Space, and Boundaries

  • Teach your child about private body parts. It is often helpful to define “private” body parts as the parts covered by a swim suit or underwear. Use pictures or instructional dolls to show what you mean. The more concrete the experience of learning, the better they will remember.

  • Teach your child about privacy and how some things are only done in private. Help your child define private spaces in the places where he spends time. For example, your child’s bedroom with the door closed is private, as is a stall in a public bathroom. Help them to learn how to ask for privacy. Be consistent in helping them give you privacy as well.

  • Model respect for your child’s personal space and physical boundaries by asking permission or declaring what you are going to do before touching him. Sometimes we inadvertently teach children to be helpless, passive, or compliant by doing things and making decisions for them. We help children learn healthy boundaries when we allow them some independence and input on decisions affecting them.

Touching

  • It can be challenging to teach children about touch, especially when caregivers, therapists, or medical personnel touch them in ways that might not be welcome, but that are required for their care. Sometimes touch that feels “bad” (for example a shot) is a touch that is necessary and therefore “good.”

  • Advocates recommend using concrete concepts like “red flag” and “green flag” to help children understand touch that is okay, or “green,” versus touch that is not okay, or “red.” Start by specifically addressing genital touch and when genital touch is okay (e.g. when getting help from a parent or caregiver with personal care or when being examined by a doctor), and when genital touch is not okay (e.g. when someone asks your child to show his genitals or asks him to look at or touch their genitals).

  • Use the touch situations your child experiences regularly to define specific touches that would be considered “green flag” as well as those that would be “red flag.” For example, a “green” touch would be when your child’s caregiver helps him to wipe his bottom after using the toilet, and a “red” touch would be the caregiver rubbing your child’s bottom when he is not using the toilet.

  • Once you’ve helped your child define specific touches as “green” or “red,” look for opportunities to practice determining whether touches are “green” or “red,” and how to respond to “red” touches.

  • It is very important for children to understand that touching rules are for everyone. Just as it is not okay for someone to give them a “red” touch, they should not be touching others with “red” touches.

Sexual Behaviors

  • It is common for children of various ages to engage in sexual behaviors both alone and with playmates. Use your knowledge of your child and of developmentally expected sexual behaviors in children to recognize sexual behaviors outside of what is commonly expected in children at similar developmental stages.

  • When you find your child engaging in age-appropriate sexual behaviors, for example exploring his own body or playing “doctor” with another child, calmly acknowledge what you’ve seen and set clear expectations. “It looks like you and Janie are comparing your bodies. Now get dressed. And remember, we keep our clothes on when we’re playing.” Remember your lesson on privacy? This is a great chance to reinforce that boys and girls do not go in each other’s rooms, or that we do not go under blankets together.

  • When you recognize concerning behaviors, you may need to be clearer or firmer in defining and enforcing your rules. Again, adapt your expectations to how your child responds to rules and expectations in other areas of life. Do not be afraid to use very specific language.

  • If you are seeing a pattern of concerning behaviors in your child that doesn’t respond to clear and repeated directions, discuss this with the professionals on your child’s care team, and consider seeking help from professionals who are experienced working with children who have problematic sexual behaviors.

Safety Skills

  • Saying “no” is an important safety skill. Teach your child to say “no” in lots of different ways. Help him communicate his “no” through speaking, shouting, shaking his head, stamping feet, making faces, etc. Have fun practicing his “no.” Share your child’s way of communicating “no” with his care team and your family. Ask them to respect your child’s “no.” This includes allowing your child to say “no” to hugs, holding hands, etc., when they don’t want to.

  • Help your child prepare to ask for help from a safe adult. Identify people in the various places your child spends time whom he might turn to for help. Consider the particular aspects of your child’s personality, his communication skills, and his ability to recognize concerning situations, and use role playing or practice scenarios to help him prepare for situations he might encounter.

  • Talk with the people you and your child have identified as safe adults. Explain that you and your child have made a plan for how your child will approach them if your child needs help. Ask them to agree to support your child when needed.

  • Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement in anticipation of being revealed after a short period of time. Secrets exclude others, often because the information will create upset or anger. When keeping secrets with just one person becomes routine, children are more vulnerable to abuse. Explain that adults should never ask him to keep a secret, and, if an adult does, to tell you or another safe adult.

Talking About Sexual Abuse

  • Children need to understand the range of behaviors that are considered sexual abuse. Be explicit about what is not okay for someone to do or ask your child to do. For example, “It is not okay for people to show you their private parts or to ask you to show them your private parts. It is not okay for people to touch your private parts or ask you to touch their private parts. It is not okay for people to say or write sexual things about you or your body, and it’s not okay for you to say or write sexual things about other people or their bodies.”

  • When talking about sexual abuse, use examples that include people your child knows, including caregivers, relatives, peers, siblings, people in authority, etc. This is important since more than 90 percent of the time children are sexually abused by someone they know. It is important for children to understand that even people they know and like can be inappropriate and not follow the “rules” about touching children.

(Adapted from http://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/tip-sheet-9.)

So, what else should you do?

Be proactive in safety planning for your child, and don’t be embarrassed to ask questions or intervene in concerning situations. Take the time to plan for safety, talk and listen, and voice your concerns.

  • Ask questions of your child’s daycare, school and recreational activities. Every organization that cares for your child should have policies to prevent abuse, including background and reference checks for staff members, professional training for preventing sexual abuse, and rules regarding unsupervised or one-on-one time between adults and children.

  • Let people know you are aware and observing. Drop in unexpectedly on your child’s activities from time to time to ensure your other caregivers know you are watching. Safety is increased when everyone around your children knows that you are an active and observant caregiver!

  • Decrease isolation. The majority of sexual abuse cases occur during one-on-one situations, so limit the time that adults or older youth have alone with children. And, be aware of children and families who may be especially vulnerable, such as children with disabilities or families in high-stress situations.

  • Speak up when you observe concerning or inappropriate behaviors, even if the person exhibiting these behaviors is a member of your family or an older youth. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable having difficult conversations, but remember that a child’s safety trumps our own discomfort or embarrassment. If you feel you can’t have a conversation with someone who is being inappropriate, find someone who can and who will help you intervene.

  • Report anything you know or suspect might be sexual abuse to the child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453. It is never easy to report abuse, especially if it is someone you know. But remember, it is our responsibility as adults to speak up and keep our most vulnerable children safe.

(http://www.chicagocac.org)

Finally, Trust your intuition. Many families have reported that they felt something was wrong but they kept ignoring that voice in the back of their head. God gave us instincts, and we have to learn to trust them. Following your instinct just might save your child from harm. Learn the signs of child sexual abuse so that you can be aware of your child’s reactions. You are your child’s voice; do not be afraid of speaking up.

If you learn about any type of physical or sexual abuse at school, at church, at therapy, or anywhere, demand that the proper authorities are notified immediately and that an incident report is filed ASAP. If you suspect physical abuse, take pictures of the child and document everything that you notice. You are the expert on your child. Trust yourself.

This is not an easy issue to deal with. However, this is a vital issue to be aware of because it is one that can be so easily swept under the rug, especially for moms and dads who are just trying to keep our kids’ therapy schedules and homeschooling schedules in line! I do not pretend to know or to have presented all the vital information on this issue, but I hope that I have given us all a good start in thinking about the sexual safety of our kids who do not always have a voice for themselves. Please feel free to give feedback, ideas, and thoughts so that we can all learn together how to best protect our children.

Theme Days = Fun Days

This year I have been assisting in a classroom on occasion at our small local Adventist school. The grades 2-4 teacher is amazing! She has introduced me to theme days to help make transition/hard days fun and easier. This week I assisted while many of our homeschooling and school students went skiing. Our homeschool families and school families were able to come together for a great day of joint learning!

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Cowboys were the theme, and the kids were excited! We had such a great learning time with the 12 students who were not skiing. I learned so much about how just one theme in one day can help children learn in all scholastic areas and keep them engaged. I plan on incorporating theme days into our home school schedule, as my son often will become obsessed with just one topic of interest. So here are some highlights of our Cowboy day!

We started the day learning about vaquero and buckaroos, the first cowboys. We built a fire to sit around while we talked, laughed, and learned.

We had a great informational books and a coloring sheet that explained more about the vaqueros for the kids to enjoy as they transitioned into the day together. As a group we made a list of words that describe cowboys, how they lived, and what tools they used.

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We enjoyed listening to old cowboy songs while we worked throughout the day, like Home on the Range and Red River Valley. We also watched a fun video about cowboys that everyone loved.

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For art we worked on learning how to use symmetry. We decorated cowboy boots symmetrically.

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We worked together to read a funny little skit about a farm. This skit had everyone laughing around the campfire!

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A highlight of our day was learning about cattle drives and chuck wagons. We decided to make own chuck wagon and made muffins! We even had an old-fashioned egg beater that we quickly discovered was harder to use then we thought it would be!

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Of course we wore cowboy hats throughout the day too!

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One project we worked taught us about how important a cowboy’s saddle and rope was to him. A cowboy might go through many horses in his career, but he always had the same saddle and the same rope. We made ropes by braiding yarn. Learning to braid was quite difficult, but the end result sure was fun.

During free play times the children made up stories about being a cowboy, and they even used jump ropes to try and lasso cones. At least they weren’t lassoing each other!

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Finally, we ended the day by writing our own story book about a cowboy, called the “Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboy.” I love to read all the stories and discover what the children were thinking about and learning about cowboys!

I definitely plan on implementing a theme day at least once per month in the future. My son has autism and is usually very reluctant to participate in group activities, but he joined in freely with the other children and enjoyed the day immensely! He is already talking about what themes he would like to do at home. It looks like Marine Biology Day, Butterfly Day, Lego Day, and Car Day are in our learning future!

Themes

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I am a woman who loves to find the “theme” in things. If I am going to a conference, I want to know what the theme is going to be. If I am working on a presentation, I stay true to my chosen theme. When I am preparing for a new homeschool year, I choose a theme to work around, and arrange all our learning off of that theme (this year our theme is Middle Ages). Similarly, when it is time for a new year, I want a theme. I want to know what Jesus intends to teach me and what the focus of my spiritual growth will be. Instead of choosing my own theme, like I do with most everything else, I have learned that Jesus likes pick my theme. Therefore, every year around December, I start to pray and ask Jesus to reveal to me what the theme of the year is that He has chosen.

I began this tradition two years ago. I was tired of making resolutions and then failing at them just a few weeks into the new year. I learned about praying to Jesus and asking for His theme from a friend and I decided to give it a shot. The first year I prayed for my theme, I listened carefully to His response. I heard “Restoring the Joy.” Let me tell you that that year was anything but joyful. It was a year fraught with loss, pain, grief, and heartache. At the end of the year I asked Him to make it clear why in the world he would call this the year of “restoring the joy”? His reply was startling and not at all what I expected. You can read that story at my personal blog, www.littlebirdflies.wordpress.com, under December 2014.

Last year, I asked again for Jesus’ theme for my year, and I heard “Celebration.” I was excited to find out how Jesus would teach me about celebration, and boy did He ever! He started out by teaching me to celebrate small victories. Keeping my kitchen clean, getting my son enrolled with an OT, or reading my Bible at some point everyday were all reasons for celebration. Over the year, I also had a lot of large things to celebrate. I met my future husband, my autistic son has improved socially and physically, my financial situation has improved immeasurably, and at every turn I am able to celebrate Jesus’ love in deeper and more intimate ways.

This year I asked for my theme. Sometimes, I have to wait a while before I hear His voice, but this year almost immediately I heard the word  “Growing.” Oh WOW! He hit that one on the head! My family will be growing from three children to eight when I join my life with my fiancé who has five kids. My skills will be growing as I complete my book. Our children will be growing both physically and emotionally as they adjust to our new normal. Our home will grow as we are looking for a place to live. My heart and my love will grow as we merge our lives together. I can only imagine at this point all the other ways in which growing will happen in 2016. I trust Him to show me, to grow me, and to love me through it all. I find that having Jesus’ theme at the forefront of my thoughts all through the year helps me to grow closer to Jesus personally. I have also introduced our children to the idea, and many of them are eagerly awaiting to hear their Jesus theme for the year too.

I encourage you to ask Jesus what His theme is for you this year. It is really quite simple. Just set aside some quiet time to pray and listen actively. Listen for his theme and then consecrate your coming year with Him. At the end of the year you can also ask Him to reveal any last words regarding the previous year’s theme that He wants to reveal. Keep a theme journal through the year that you can record how He comes through, Bible verses He gives you, and what you learn.

When He tells you, I’d love to hear about it!

Handwriting and the Friendly Letter

My son deeply dislikes handwriting. I run up against his resistance a lot when I give him an assignment. Recently, it was time for him to learn how to write a letter. I pulled out the books, the curriculum, and we worked, we cried, and we fought. I was unhappy and he was unhappy. This was not a great way to begin our adventure in letter writing. Something had to change!

10929058_10152766772003299_8271002488453607597_nThat night we were sitting on the couch together watching Treehouse Masters. My son loves Treehouse Masters, and he was deeply engaged in watching it. At the same time, he also had a notebook in which he was designing his own tree house. He was excited and conversing with me about his tree house plans. That is when my lightbulb switched on and I began to make MY plans.

The next day we approached letter writing in a whole new way.

We started the day with watching another episode of Treehouse Masters. That, of course got Tim excited and thinking. Afterward, I explained to him that he had an opportunity to write a ‘fan letter’ to Pete from Treehouse Masters. This made it personal for Tim and he started talking so fast that I couldn’t keep up!

We set to work! First, I helped him decide on three to five things he wanted to tell Pete. He dictated to me a whole bunch of ideas that he was excited to share in his letter. I let him brainstorm freely and I wrote down everything he said. Next, we took his ideas and I read them back to him. We were able to verbally combine many of his ideas, delete others, and finally we end up with an interesting list of things he wanted to include in his letter.

I introduced to him the Friendly Letter Freebie from Teacherspayteachers.com. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Friendly-Letter-Freebie-964399

This is a great packet that helps to introduce the different elements of a letter in a very friendly and low key way. I did not use it cover to cover, but just as a guide for him to refer to. I made a quick little memory game of greeting options and salutations that we played. This helped him to remember and decide what greeting and closing was appropriate to use.

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Finally, we were ready to put his letter together. He researched the address and wrote that in the appropriate place on his paper.  Then, he took the sentences he wanted to write and put them into the body of the letter. Finally, he ended the letter with his chosen greeting.

I encouraged him to do punctuation and capitalization corrections and by the end of the week he was ready to do his final draft. He was pretty tired of writing it at this point so I was happy that we had taken our time to do each step according to his ability to stay focused.

After he addressed the envelope, we were ready to take a field trip to the post office that I had arranged. He purchased his stamp and mailed his letter. 11136723_10152858570468299_2633289733339705099_nHe was very excited and was super hopeful that Pete would write him back.

(Unknown to Timothy, I slipped in my own little note explaining that Tim has autism and had been working on this letter for two weeks. I requested that someone please write him back. As a special needs mom, I do whatever I can to help with my son’s success.)

A few weeks later a special package came in the mail. It was a letter from Pete, personally written to Timothy. It included a postcard that was signed and few other goodies. Timothy was so excited. He enjoyed the return letters so much that he decided to write more letters, and now he is an expert letter writer!

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Better to …. Receive??

Sometimes homeschooling includes communicating with our children and helping them sort through hard life lessons. Following is a post (written December 2010) from my personal blog about a life lesson that my children and I learned together our first Christmas away from a very abusive home. I am very open and honest with my kids about the hard parts of life. The story below is one that we discussed, wrote together, and learned from. I hope you learn from it too …

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Christmas. What a blessed season. A season of giving. A time to show how much we care. We get so excited when we find the perfect gift for the person we love. We look forward to seeing their surprise and joy over the incredible gift we selected for them. We are taught that it is “better to give than to receive,” Acts 20:35. We are taught that we should always think of others before ourselves. Christmas is the time of year when we see these values acted out more than any other time.

Every year in the past, my three children and I were sure to wrap a toy for a needy child, carol for the elderly, and always we put our spare change in the red bucket outside of the store. Every year we went shopping for the special gifts to put under our tree for each other. We had a budget and usually blew it with the excitement of giving that perfect gift.

I never really gave a thought to the child who would get that toy we wrapped or what exactly happened to the spare change we threw into the red bucket. I never really stopped to consider how lonely and stressful it would be to not be able to give during this special time of year. I never thought about it until I was the one who had nothing to give and everything to receive. I was the one who gave and I was so happy to share. Then, unexpectedly, I had nothing to give even my own young children. I was sad and worried as we moved from Thanksgiving into the Christmas season, but I had no idea what lessons God had in store for me.

Suddenly, as the season began there were so many “giving” demands that I was expected to meet. My daughter needed $2 so that she could make an ornament at school. Shoeboxes for needy children needed to be filled with fun and exciting toys at church. New coats for children were being collected, and we could even go to special concerts if we brought a new unwrapped toy as a donation. Then, there was the gift exchange at the church Christmas party, and of course the children wanted to drop their pennies and dimes into the red money-box outside the store.

To me, the “giving” season was no longer feeling so blessed or so giving. I needed to keep the $2 to put gas in the car so my daughter could even get to school. My children were picking out clothes from the donation center. Our family could certainly benefit with a shoebox under the tree for gifts for my children. There would be no special concerts for us, because we could not afford to buy any toys, much less an extra toy. When we went to the store and passed the red money bucket, I would duck my head and rush on past with tears flowing quietly down my cheeks.

It is more blessed to give than to receive. But, what if I have nothing to give?

I refused to complain. As a mom I am determined to give thanks in all things, as well as teach my children to give thanks. I long for us to have a joyful spirit in all things. I want to teach my children that Jesus is looking after us every moment of every day, and our needs are being met by Him. These are the things that matter the most. My children didn’t always see it that way. I comforted myself with the notion that this would be a good character building opportunity for them. Soon, however, and unknown to us, word got out about our situation.

One day someone dropped a small fake Christmas tree, plus bright white lights and sparkly ornaments, off at our apartment. We had spent the previous weekend decorating our fake Ficus tree in the living room with paper and popcorn. That tree caused a lot of excitement for my little family!

Then, someone slipped a much-needed gas card into my wallet at church. An overflowing food basket showed up at our doorstep, and one special morning we found Christmas stockings filled with delightful goodies for each of us to open! We felt so happy and so blessed!

Blessed? That started me thinking. Isn’t it more blessed to give? The Bible tells us about the woman who gave her last coins to the church. What about the widow who shared her last flour and oil to save a stranger? They were blessed beyond measure for their willingness to give.

I sat down to think hard to remember any stories I had been told that focus on receiving. Soon those stories started to come to me. Mary sat at Jesus feet and received his love and wisdom. The blind man received the gift of sight. The woman at the well received forgiveness and a new life. In fact, there seem to be many more stories of people who were blessed by receiving then by giving!

Christ is our example in all things. He is the ultimate Gift Giver. This year I began to think of him as the ultimate Gift Receiver too. Without question Jesus accepts our gifts of broken, crushed, humiliated, and devastated lives. He smiles and laughs in complete joy when we offer up to Him our sin as a gift. He takes that gift with total Love for us. He unconditionally empties out the rusty pennies from our buckets, and in His mercy he gives us His gifts of Love, of forgiveness, of companionship, of acceptance, and of eternal life. He teaches us to give, but He also teaches us to receive.

It is indeed blessed to give, but I have learned that I am also very blessed to receive. He wants you and me to accept this gift, His gift, the ability to receive.