Special Needs Ministry programs draw kids from the peripheries into parish life

By Renae Kranz

As we begin Respect Life Month in October, much of the focus shines on abortion and euthanasia. And while those issues are important, other facets of the pro-life movement need to be brought to the forefront more often. One of those facets is promoting the dignity of those with disabilities and special needs, and the diocesan Special Needs Ministry works to do just that.

The Special Needs Ministry (formerly REACH) exists to serve and support those with special needs in the diocese. Their mission says it perfectly:

Our hope is to raise awareness for those with disabilities in our diocese, and to provide religious education services in both our parishes and schools. We aim to educate the hearts of all clergy, staff, volunteers and parishioners to the beauty that awaits them in each unique individual we serve. It is our desire to aid our parishes and schools in serving those with special needs in order to live out the gospel as Christ has laid out for us.

The Price family. Chloe, Maggie, Zelie, Andy and Michael.

Special Education Consultant Maggie Price leads the ministry which started out as a confirmation class for kids with special needs who weren’t able to participate in the regular religious education classes. It was important that these kids were provided a path to receive that sacrament.

The program grew from there, adding Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and a youth group, and offering workshops for directors of religious education, priests and volunteers. Price also consults with parishes and schools to help them develop ways to help special needs kids learn and adjust to their environments.

“I like working with the kiddos. That’s where my joy is,” Price says.

Last summer the ministry offered time with the Totus Tuus program. For an entire day, the Totus Tuus team put on a fun program adapted to the needs of the kids. It was an exciting day for those kids and the Totus Tuus team alike, and it’s something they plan to do again next year.

The main goal of the Special Needs Ministry is to make sure each kid has the opportunity to receive a Catholic faith education. With that in mind, Price often acts as an advocate for parents and special needs kids to help parishes find ways to be more inclusive to them. She feels strongly that each of those kids deserves to have access to be able to be a full member of the faith.

“I’m like a mediator a little bit,” she says, “making sure that both sides are feeling like they have what they need to be able to give that child the education in the faith. It all has to start at the parish level.”

Becoming part of the group

Jodi Reel’s son, Jack, has been a part of the Special Needs Ministry program for several years. The oldest of Jodi and husband Tom’s six children, Jack is on the autism spectrum and was unable to take part in the church programs offered. It was difficult for the family to navigate.

“It’s difficult to drop your kids off at church programs and not have a place for your child with disabilities,” Reel says. “It’s difficult to have to ‘go it alone’ and educate your child in the faith privately while your other kids have multiple opportunities to be active members of the Church. It has been a tremendous blessing for us that Jack has a youth group (Cool Kids) that he can participate in.”

The Reel family. Back row from left: Jack, Jon, Jodi, Tom, Claire and Grace. Front row from left: Nathan and Mark.

The Special Needs Ministry provides a place for kids like Jack to become an active member of the Church. The assistance the ministry gave for confirmation prep was invaluable to the Reel family. Jack has now made friends in his parish, learned more about his faith and prayer, and has a real opportunity to share his faith with others around him.

Reel says Jack has a strong desire to participate in parish life and enjoys meeting other people who are also earnestly living their Catholic faith. She says his own faith is an integral part of who he is and the Special Needs Ministry opened doors that helped him develop and nurture it.

“It gathers them from the periphery and places them in the heart of the Church and its ministry,” Reel says.

One of the ways Price helps to bring these kids in from the periphery is as simple as helping their parents feel comfortable bringing them to Mass. She says one of the questions she gets the most is how to bring kids to Mass and not feel disruptive.

“Parents are super afraid of doing that because no one likes a disruptive kid,” Price says. “I don’t care if your kid has a disability or not, it’s embarrassing to have a disruptive kid during Mass and it’s difficult. And parents ask, what do I do?”

Some solutions Price can offer might be having a buddy at Mass who can sit with the child, or going to a Mass with fewer people or less music. Since different children have different triggers, the options will vary with each family. It can also take pressure off the family if the priest is aware of the challenges they face.

Parishes also need to be open and welcoming to kids with special needs. We can encourage the child and family by being friendly, complimenting whatever a child did well or just having patience when Mass isn’t going so well. The key is to make sure those families don’t feel isolated in a place that should be all about community.

A good place to start in learning how to include these kids is to remember first that God loves us all because He created us to be in relationship with Him. Price sees these kids as fully deserving of all of God’s gifts and the sacraments as they’re able to receive them. She says it’s a common misconception that some special needs children wouldn’t be able to at least receive the Eucharist.

“It’s very rare that they wouldn’t be able to receive the sacraments as far as the Eucharist,” Price says. “And it’s very rare that they won’t be able to participate in some way in parish life. If you think they can’t, call me because I would love to see. I’m up for the challenge. These kids have something to give and offer. No life is ever wasted.”

All are precious to God

Price has always felt just being in the presence of these kids is a beautiful gift. They are usually very childlike and pure and stay close to Jesus. They’re also confident in who they are and how they’re made and don’t sweat it when they make a mistake. We can learn a lot from them.

“I’m not saying they can’t be stinkers and don’t have their quirks or whatever, because I’ve dealt with that, too,” Price says. “But for the most part, it’s like they don’t have to live to impress everybody. They truly are really just living to be who God created them to be. And that’s what we should all be doing.”

Price’s best advice to the families of kids with special needs and to all of us is to not be afraid. We’re all afraid of things that are different or challenging, but allowing that fear to get in the way is allowing the devil to get in the way of us reaching out and loving and serving each other.

“We need to have these kids be members of the body of Christ and of our parishes and of our schools and of our communities,” Price says. “So have the courage to step out and include them, even if you’re afraid.”

Price sees all kids as deserving of love and faith. Since God sees these children as beautiful members of his body, we all need to see that, too.

“I think He sees them just as He sees all of us, like His beloved sons and daughters. He loves them infinitely, without limits, no matter what,” Price says. “I think He is just pouring out graces on those parents, because we live in a world where it’s actually okay to kill a baby with Down syndrome before they’re born or any genetic disability. These people chose life. So I think He sees these families as amazing, as saints in the making, as warriors, as pro-life, as examples of Him, as his hands and feet on earth.”

If you’d like more information about the Special Needs Ministry in the diocese, contact Price at mprice@sfcatholic.org or visit them on the diocesan website at sfcatholic.org/special-needs.