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Spreading the Joy of Love

 “People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid, and unity…” Amoris Laetitia 37

“I love coming!”

Betsy Bricker, age 37, looks forward to every second Wednesday of the month.  On that day from May to October, she participates in the SPRED program offered by Prince of Peace Parish, Lewiston.

“I like coming to SPRED because we learn about God and different stories, and we have quiet time,” she says.

SPRED, an acronym for Special Religious Development, is a religious education program designed to serve children and young adults with developmental disabilities. SPRED was developed in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the1960s in response to requests from parents who wanted their children to receive the sacraments and come to know Christ but who also recognized that a traditional religious class might not be the right fit.

The SPRED model combines fun activities such as games and puzzles, with quiet prayer, a Scripture reading and reflection, and then a snack.

“We get in a big circle, and we say a prayer, and then we go to another circle, and we sit down in a circle and someone reads the Gospel,” explains Betsy. “Then, we go to the snack table. Somebody reads the prayer, and then we take bread, and it goes around the table, and we say, ‘God bless you.’”

Betsy is among nine regular participants, referred to as “friends,” in the Prince of Peace Parish group, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016.  The group began at Saint Joseph Church in Lewiston, but when that church closed, it accepted an invitation to meet in the hall of Sacred Heart Church in Auburn, part of neighboring Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.

The woman who founded the SPRED group in 1991 and still leads it today is Irene Chamberlain.  She started the program with an eye towards her grandson Christopher, who has autism.  While Christopher wasn’t immediately able to participate because he required treatment out of state, many other young people did, including Jerry Cote and Betsy, who have both been the program since the beginning.

“It’s good. It’s good. We pray,” says Jerry, age 39.

“There are smiles on everyone’s faces. We laugh. We have good times.

Sometimes, when we hear news, it’s sad, and we pray for them,” says Betsy.

“It’s kind of fun. It’s enjoyable. It’s religion,” says Scott Wilson, age 28, a member since 2004.

The participants have different cognitive abilities, but the program is presented in a manner designed to resonate with all of them.  The circle of prayer, for instance, helps the young people quiet down.  The lessons are taught using a picture of object because they help the children focus.

“It’s very interesting teaching at real multiple levels, and the symbols really help a lot with that,” says Bob Thomas, who, along with Mora LePage, prepares most of the lessons. “I try to bring in something because it draws them in.”

On the Feast of the Epiphany, for instance, Mora used a candle depicting the Three Kings, as well as map to communicate her message.

“We had Three Kings, these Magi, who wanted to come and visit Jesus.  Did they have a map?” she asks the group.

“No, they had a star, the Star of Bethlehem,” replies Jennifer Bates, age 30, who has attended since 2008.

“They brought gifts,” Mora continues. “Do you remember any of the gifts?”

“Myrrh, gold, frankincense,” answers Dylan Labrecque.

Each youth or young adult is paired with a catechist, and it is the bond formed between them that is at the core of SPRED’s success.  As with the special friends, most of the catechists have been with the program for years.

“I stayed because the kids and the program are just so awesome. They are so loving, and they teach us so very much. They teach us how to love one another. And it’s so special,” says Mora.

“I wish they did it every week,” says Tina Longchamps. “It makes me happy.”

“Anytime you help somebody in need, it’s rewarding,” say Claire Jean.

“These are really great kids, and it’s very satisfying,” says Bob, who has one son with autism and another with dyslexia, both of whom benefited from the program. “I sometimes think these kids get it more than adults do.”

The parents say they are pleased that their children have this opportunity.

“It’s been wonderful. It offers faith formation, and he was able to receive the sacraments,” says Diane Chamberlain Duplissis, Christopher’s mother. “The way they introduce the sacraments, it’s beautiful. It’s so hands on. It’s amazing.”

“It’s been wonderful for her to participate,” says Holly Bricker, Betsy’s mother. “The catechists have been very patient working through a lot, so that she could make her first Communion and make her confirmation.”

The participants say the group is like a family. Everyone supports one another. No one judges.

“It’s really good when you’re with your friends,” says Betsy. “I like helping my friends when they need help.”

“My favorite part is helping out,” agrees Jennifer.

The parents, friends, and catechists are all thankful to Irene for her long commitment to the program.

“Irene and SPRED really put together an amazing program that meets these children where they are at,” says Michelle Allain-Newton, Prince of Peace faith formation director. “She does an incredible job.”

“She is very special to us. You can’t go wrong with her. We give her hugs,” says Betsy.