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Include Me ministry helps families worship together

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April 1, 2012

By Patricia McGeever

LIBERTY TOWNSHIP — When Gail and Jon Batross and their three sons attend the noon Mass at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, they don’t sit in the sanctuary.


Instead, the family goes into a multi-purpose room just off the vestibule that’s equipped with folding chairs and an audio/video hookup. They watch Mass on a large video screen and participate just as if they were sitting in the pews. The two youngest Batross children, ages 13 and 9, are autistic and their involuntary and sometimes loud outbursts make it difficult for the family to sit together at Mass. This option gives them and other families with special needs children the chance to worship together.


“I think it is a blessing,” said Gail Batross of the set up at St. Max. “Before, my husband or I would be out in the hallway with whoever seemed the loudest or the two louder ones while one of us would stay in the church with our oldest son.”


Sheila Sinhasan also attends this Mass with her 8-year-old twin boys; one who is autistic.
“It’s made a huge difference in our spiritual life,” she said of this sensory-friendly Mass. “I can concentrate on the Mass and know that he is there. Sometimes he can sit with me and watch and sometimes he needs to wander.”


Melinda Fischer and Tammi Stauber co-chair the Include Me ministry at the parish, which introduced the concept to parishioners. Each of them has a child with special needs and each wanted to be able to come to church as a family.


“We were getting to the point that we couldn’t come to church anymore because our son is too disruptive for the other people,” said Fischer. “I’m thrilled so many people can benefit from it because we initially thought it would be a handful of families.”


The Include Me Ministry first offered the Mass in late summer. It’s been so successful that it’s now offering to help other parishes interested in doing the same thing.


“We started doing it once a month and it was so well received we were like, how can we not offer this to people every week?” said Debi LaFrankie, a volunteer room coordinator who has a background inworking with special needs children. She was instrumental in taking the idea and putting it into action.


“The parents know I’m not going to let anybody out that door,” she explained. “The other thing that I watch is there’s a lot of sensory needs, so if the sound comes on too loud, then I immediately go to turn it down so that they’re not overwhelmed.”


There are usually two room coordinators and a few other volunteers at the Mass each week. They put fresh pillow cases on the king-sized and body pillows made available to the children who need to cling to them. They also put out some books of Bible stories if the children want to flip through them.


There are about 11 families who benefit from this Mass and from the other social activities that the Include Me Ministry hosts. Some, like the Batross family, may come from other parishes. That’s why organizers are eager to share their model with other churches that may want to set up a similar program. Three have shown some interest. Those involved with the ministry say not only have their loved ones found comfort and acceptance, but the families’ spiritual and social lives have been enhanced by the program.


Parishes interested in learning more about the sensory-friendly Mass may contact Caron Bergen, pastoral associate for outreach and communications coordinator at St. Maximilian Kolbe, at cber [email protected] for more information.

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