ROGERS — Parents of special needs children are all too familiar with the everyday challenges and obstacles their children face. The tasks of learning to socialize, keep up with education and manage day-to-day skills can present a host of difficulties for teens with special needs.
Even receiving the sacraments can prove daunting.
But on Saturday, June 4, four young people in northwest Arkansas proved it possible as they were confirmed by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor with pastor Msgr. David LeSieur and Deacon Ronnie Hoyt at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Rogers assisting.
Although all four students are from different schools, the ceremony brought them together to share in the same sacrament after two months of specialized instruction.
Prior to the parish’s confirmation Mass, this special confirmation rite was held for Gabriella Ruiz, Jack Nguyen, Justo Najera and Erick Morales in an 8 a.m. ceremony in the daily chapel. The ceremony lasted 40 minutes in contrast to the three-hour event that followed at 9 a.m. in the main sanctuary for the more than 270 teens confirmed from the area.
Students, their families and instructors were the only ones in attendance at the ceremony, keeping the scenery familiar and unintimidating. Yet, the simplicity and beauty of their ceremony was in contrast to the complexity of the behind-the-scenes work it took to make it a reality.
“It was so nice of them to think of these children and be aware of their needs with a separate ceremony,” said Claudia Morales, mother of confirmation candidate, Erick, after the ceremony. “It was beautiful.”
Debbie Dufford, one of the teens’ primary sacrament preparation instructors, recognized the need for this area of instruction in the parish several years ago. Dufford, who worked for 10 years as the children’s ministry coordinator in the parish, understood that while parents of special needs children wanted them to receive the sacraments, the traditional classes and format of instruction were not always workable.
Most catechetical materials available were designed to be more verbal and language based and included complex concepts difficult to translate to the student with special needs. Searching out information that included this underserved population in the parish connected Dufford to another family that knew the challenges first-hand.
A diocesan workshop introduced her to catechesis materials the Rizzo family in New Jersey had developed for their daughter with autism so she could more fully understand the sacrament of holy Communion. Their positive experience led David and Mercedes Rizzo and their son, Brendan, to develop materials and methods for teaching the sacraments to those with special needs in their own parish, St. Isaac Jogues, in Marlton, N.J.
Their work was the catalyst for publishing a set of visual teaching tools by Loyola Press, known as Adaptive First Eucharist Kit. From there, the Adaptive First Reconciliation Kit and the Adaptive Confirmation Kit have been released and made available to other dioceses.
“Fortunately, that curriculum through Loyola Press was developed to focus on the special needs of these students,” said Kalisa Newton, sacrament preparation coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “It breaks down all of the parts that are a process that might seem overwhelming for these students.”
David and Jamie Brantley, special education teachers, also saw this as an area of need and became involved with the instruction of these students at St. Vincent de Paul in the spring and found it to be very joyful.
Both retired from teaching in May and have worked with children with special needs for two decades. When Dufford came to them for advice, they decided to help teach the classes.
“We do believe that this is a need in the diocese,” Jamie Brantley said. “Mainly because many folks are just uncomfortable in dealing with these children. These young adults require short sessions with lots of visuals and repetition. They also need to be able to actually experience the tastes, smells and textures and actions that are a part of the sacraments so none of it will be a surprise.”
“This is especially important for those with sensory issues, such as are common with individuals on the autism spectrum,” she added.
The Brantleys recommended that parishes enlist the help of parishioners who are special education teachers, who might not teach the classes but could advise the instructors.
“After discussing the needs of these students and talking to their parents, we knew that it would be difficult for them to make it through the main Confirmation Mass,” Newton said.
“This was the first year we have done confirmation preparation for these special students and been able to identify that there was a need for some extra instruction,” Dufford said. “In the past we have worked to personalize the instruction depending on the needs of the child, but we want to make sure we are inviting all to the sacraments.”
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