A new ministry at the Parish of the Holy Eucharist in Falmouth seeks to open doors for those in their community who have special needs.
“As a Church, we have this call to bring Christ to everybody and then everybody to Christ,” says Georgette Dionne, the parish’s director of lifelong faith formation. “We fulfill certain things in people’s lives.”
The Open Hearts, Open Doors ministry is intended to reach out to anyone who has a special need, whether it’s a child with a developmental disability or a senior who has a mobility issue.
“The ministry will work to integrate all members of the community to do the Lord’s work in the world,” says Georgette.
To start the ministry, the parish received a $2,250 Catholic Charities Parish Social Ministry Matthew 25 grant in 2017. Since that time, Georgette has worked to put together a team whose members have a passion for serving those with special needs.
They are people like Suzanne Brown, whose 12-year-old daughter, Payton, has Williams syndrome and autism.
“As a parent of a child with a disability, I feel it is important to put the word out there that we’re here to help, help the entire family,” says Suzanne. “It’s important to make parents feel they are welcome.”
“As a Catholic Christian community, we should follow an inclusionary model,” says Mario Pascarelli, a longtime vocational teacher, who now works as a therapeutic driving instructor, helping those with disabilities learn how to drive horses. “We should follow an inclusionary model where this population is really valued and appreciated.”
“With my experience with my son, I was embarrassed because I felt like I was being judged as a parent for something that was out of my control. So, I felt completely isolated, and I don’t want anybody to feel that way,” says Suzette Devine, whose son suffers from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “It’s going to be a really interesting journey for all of us to figure out how to honor everybody.”
The ministry has two primary focuses: increasing awareness and understanding among parishioners and then making sure the faith community is addressing the spiritual, sacramental, environmental, and communal needs of those who have disabilities.
“Here is a mission we can all participate in, and we can all be positive about, and we can all contribute to. Just by your attitude, by your actions, and by your interactions, we can open the door really, really wide to a whole new group of people to participate in the Catholic faith more fully,” says Mario.
“We have to invite people, because they may be feeling less than others,” says Johnna White, who has worked in special education for years. “They feel like they have to explain to everybody why their child speaks out or misbehaves or needs special attention. So, it’s critical, if you’re going to have a family who is rich in their faith, that they have all the support they need. This is what this is all about.”
To reach out and assess the needs of the community, surveys were distributed, and members of the committee spoke at Masses at the parish’s four churches: Holy Martyrs of North America in Falmouth, Sacred Heart in Yarmouth, St. Gregory in Gray, and St. Jude in Freeport.
Most of the responses they received were from seniors, many of whom expressed concerns about accessibility. The Open Hearts, Open Doors ministry will work with the parish’s Aging with Grace ministry to explore those issues.
Believing that there are parents or guardians of children with special needs whom they still need to reach, the Open Hearts, Open Doors Ministry decided to begin by forming a support group.
“Because we are a church, we fulfill a certain function which the secular world does not, and that is the function of supporting one another in faith-related matters, in our spirituality. This means that in a support group with parents and guardians, we can include prayer and reflection, social interaction, a safe place where the adults can feel that they are not alone,” says Georgette.
Georgette emphasizes the group will not be a counseling session but, rather, a chance to engage in discussions about the parents’ or guardians’ own spiritual needs as they raise their children, how the faith community can better integrate them into all aspects of parish life, and how the parish family can support them in their lifelong faith formation, as well providing formation for their children, including preparing them to receive the sacraments.
“I think it’s really important to reach out to people who may have chosen to practice their faith in a different way because they felt like they couldn’t be included in our community. Finding ways for kids who have disabilities to connect with God is so important,” says Annie Smith, a recreational therapist, who now works in the faith formation office.
“Our parish ministry group can help to direct parents and guardians to local groups and resources. I meet with a group of moms of special needs children in my town, and it is so amazing and helpful. We would love to help anyone looking for that same comfort,” says Suzanne.
If you’re interested in joining the support group, contact Suzanne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732.841.5690.