by Susan Tonarelli

When our son was 2, specialists diagnosed him with severe developmental delays and autism. I didn’t know anyone at the time with a special needs child, and I felt lost and alone. Two weeks later, our daughter was born prematurely and rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU.) In a short period of time, we had two special needs children, and the inflow of unsolicited advice was pouring in. One word describes our daily state of living then — overwhelmed!.

In Control

Have you ever been confidently strolling through life, feeling like a super hero — strong, independent, never letting anyone see you sweat? Then, a major life event happens? That’s how 2003 was for me.

Truth is, I enjoyed being in control of everything. Unfortunately, the result was I did not reach out for help when I needed it. I missed everyday moments and perhaps drove everyone crazy!

But God started working in me through life changing events. Through those trials, I was tested to give up control, rely on God, and grow in my relationship with Him. Although I had been through adversities, 2003 started to crack the shell of control. It was one of the years I would look back on in hindsight and say, “So, that’s why!”

It was a year of asking why.

Going it Alone Together

Those events in 2003 began to give me a new perspective on community. I realized living every day feeling depleted on all levels is not the way it’s supposed to be. After working very hard to do it all and put on a good front that everything was being handled fantastically, I was completely worn out. Granted, this took several years to admit, and it made for some tough days. Why did I wait so long?

My first step was to find people who could relate to our situation, people who got it. The special needs community became a huge part of my life and has been there every step of the way. In return, I believe I’ve helped families going through similar trials.

My husband went active duty Air Force in 2008, and I found another great need for community when we moved across country. Again, it took me more time to really start getting this big picture. Yes, my control instincts were that stubborn! I can’t pinpoint the exact moment things switched for me, but I can confidently say it has changed the way I do life.

I began to see Jesus in those He put in my life as more trials came my way. I quickly learned that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that is by design. The weakness part was a tough pill to swallow. I do not have it all, making it necessary to rely on others to fill in the gaps. What a relief not to have the stress of doing it alone when I was not intended to do so. When I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable and open to different people, I saw God putting the exact right people in my path. No coincidences there!

God worked with me for several years, honing this new concept of community through a series of moves, deployments, an epilepsy diagnosis for me, increased needs for our son and the everyday challenges we all face in this broken world. Spiritual gifts given to each of us in the form of individual personalities, talents and skills all come from God. And each time He got me through with the help of others, and thereby, growing my faith.

The Biggest One Yet

The biggest challenge to my faith happened in 2016, when our son was diagnosed with cancer. My husband was deployed the day the oncologist called with the devastating news. The next year was filled with intense in-patient chemo treatments, pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) stays and a long recovery.

It was a whirlwind of emotions.

I knew I had no control over the outcome of this ugly cancer, a rare and aggressive form of leukemia that required a complicated protocol. But once again, God had a tribe of people right there waiting for me. Thanks to the many trials prior to his diagnosis and my true understanding of what it means to rely on others, this time of suffering was easier. What I saw were miraculous displays of Jesus through our healthcare providers, church community and family and friends.

Here was the perfect example of everyone’s strengths coming together to make things happen. The abilities of the researchers to find a protocol for such a rare cancer, the oncologists that implemented the plan, the nurses who administered the chemo and sat with us day and night, the staff that kept us as comfortable as possible and provided encouragement and hope, the church and military community that cooked meals and steadfastly prayed, family and friends near and far all joining together to hold our family in prayer were all pieces to the successful outcome.

Love is action. God’s love is shown to us through other’s actions. It takes being vulnerable and the willingness to be humble to truly see the importance of community on our faith. I know for certain, I would not be where I am today without learning this and then using my God-given talents and skills to grow the faith of others.

Today I enjoy the positive impact of community in my life and the everyday moments with our two beautiful and healthy children. I praise God for His intervention in my life and for placing the awareness in my heart to be open to the strength of community.

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the laws of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NLT).



Susan Tonarelli currently resides in Washington state with her husband, who is active duty Air Force and their teenaged son and daughter. She is highly invested in the special needs community and childhood cancer organizations through volunteer work and mentoring.  She attributes her Christian faith and community for her accomplishments.