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New ministry focuses on including those with special needs in parish life

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Thursday, September 30, 2010
By David Eck 
ST. ANDREW DEANERY — Sometimes families who have members with special needs don’t participate in parish life, or they skip Mass altogether because they don’t feel welcomed or accepted.
But a new ministry at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Liberty Township is working to change that. The “Include Me” ministry was started about a year ago and is now looking to grow.

Members of the Include Me ministry
Members of the Include Me ministry participated in a mission fair at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Liberty Township. From left are Tammi Stauber, Sheryl Hudson, Melinda Fischer and Judy Horne. (Courtesy photo)
The primary mission of the group, which was formed by three families from St. Maximilian and one from St. John Parish in nearby West Chester, is to enable parishioners with special needs to participate in their faith and parish events as fully as possible. Additional goals are to support caregivers of those with special needs and to help other parish ministries and parishioners understand the unique needs of those people.
“We’re really focusing on building a faith community,” said St. Maximilian parishioner Sheryl Hudson, one of the founders of the ministry whose adult daughter has Down syndrome. “We’re just a group of Catholics who want to support each other and ground each other in the Catholic faith.”
Other founding members are Mary Perrino and Tammi Stauber of St. Maximilian and Judy Horne of St. John Parish. The families at St. Maximilian met at a Christ Renews His Parish event and Stauber knew Horne. The women realized the common bond they share and decided to work for a more complete parish experience for their loved ones.
“We all learned we had a similar home experience,” Stauber said. “We felt like we needed something more for our kids at church.”
Among their goals are to have people with special needs help with parish activities like the festival and fish fries. Those who are able can assist at Mass, Stauber said.
The group recently participated in a ministry fair at St. Maximilian and held its second annual morning of reflection at St. John. The event provided an opportunity for families and caregivers to enjoy fellowship, faith sharing, scripturally-based parental and caregiver support and brainstorming on how their loved ones can be more involved in their faith and parish within their abilities.
Other events planned are meet-and-greets, ongoing Bible study for families, Stations of the Cross tailored to youth and inclusion during Lent. The group is also working on sensory-friendly and disability-friendly worship ideas for the parish. Possibilities include signing during Mass and a smaller sanctuary space for people who cannot tolerate loud noises and large areas.
Hudson said St. Maximilian pastor Father Geoff Drew has been supportive of the ministry by making some accommodations for those with special needs and accepting them to help in any aspect of the Mass that they are able.
At a recent meet-and-greet at St. Maximilian, families socialized while their children played and snacked on cookies and candy. It was a relaxed environment in which everyone could feel comfortable.
Sheila Sinhasan is the new to group. Her 6-year-son has autism and is very sensitive to sound, which makes it difficult to attend Mass. She hopes the ministry will help find a way for her family to become involved in the parish and connect with other special-needs families.
“I’d like for him to be able to come to church again like we used to as a family,” she said. “This parish has a lot activities, and I would like for us to be able to participate more in those activities.”
Colleen Gerke, director of the archdiocesan Family Life Office, worked with the group when she was director of faith formation at St. Maximilian Kolbe. She also has a son with a learning disability.
Gerke encourages parishioners not to be judgmental about people with special needs and to ask questions if they see something they don’t understand.
“I would encourage them to approach parents and voice their support and desire to understand,” Gerke said. “So many times there are parents and their children who don’t come to Mass because they don’t feel welcome and accepted.”
The Include Me ministry can help educate parishioners by sharing their stories and advocating for their loved ones. The group can also provide fellowship and support for other special needs families.
“We all have slightly different experiences so we can help each other,” said Horne, whose 12-year-old daughter has a neurological speech disorder. “It’s really just a level of understanding between all of us. It’s level of comfort.”
David Eck can be reached at [email protected].
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