FORT SMITH — Each spring and fall, Deacon Tom Jakobs leads a four-session retreat between Sunday Masses at Christ the King Church.
This year’s Lenten retreat, “Putting on the Mind of Christ,” speaks not only to what Catholics are called to do but to Jakobs’ own spiritual journey as an engineer working with special needs clients and as an ordained deacon.
“My calling to the diaconate is part of the same ministry as my profession,” he said. “When you spend time with people who are severely disabled it changes your prayer life. You have a different sense of God being with you no matter what rather than God manipulating your path. You come to recognize that faith is lived at the level of not really knowing as much as you think you know and more trusting that God will be with you through it.”
Jakobs first started working with disabled people when he and his wife Diane, both engineers, moved to Huntsville, Ala., with their young son Eric. While on an 18-month paternity leave, he began volunteering with United Cerebral Palsy and decided to put his bioengineering training to use working with severely disabled clients.
In 1988, when his family moved to Fort Smith, Jakobs created InvoTek at the Genesis Business Incubator at the University of Arkansas. InvoTek, which now employs four engineers, provides engineering services to people with severe disabilities.
“In order to design things for people with severe disabilities, I began spending time with people who were terminally ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease),” Jakobs said. “I was kind of afraid of what it would do to me emotionally, because I’m not someone who can go halfheartedly into any project. I have a very special place in my heart for people with ALS and their families and wanted to do more to help them.”
In 2011, Jakobs was part of a team who started a pilot program, Be Extraordinary, to help people with very severe injuries achieve life goals, and that program, which operates alongside InvoTek, achieved 501(c)(3) non-profit status in 2012. This fall, Be Extraordinary began working with Euper Lane School in Fort Smith to develop a playground that fosters interaction between disabled and non-disabled children as well as a “safe space” where children with severe emotional problems can de-stress in an environment customized through software to help them recover.
“The gift that severely disabled individuals and their families give me is that they live life at a depth almost no one else does,” he said. “As a deacon it grounds me in the value of humanity, even for people with very severe disabilities, the value they bring to society when we honor them and take care of them. It’s very ‘blessed are the poor,’ not because they’re poor but because when we do things with them and lift them up we become more human.”
While he was setting up Be Extraordinary, Jakobs was also preparing for his diaconate ordination in 2012. He had earned his bachelor’s degree in theology from St. Gregory University in Oklahoma and was teaching RCIA classes when then-pastor Father Tom Elliott asked him if he’d ever thought about becoming a deacon. Taken aback, Jakobs offered to teach more classes, but Father Elliott said he really wanted someone to preach.
He found that his work with the severely disabled, learning the value of living deeply and praying with trust was good preparation for the diaconate.
“The disabled elicit love and willingness to suffer for somebody else, and you are touched because you realize where the depth of love is,” he said. “I love being in the environment where the depth of life is so deep that it makes me feel like they really matter and I really matter and God is in that relationship.”
“Putting on the Mind of Christ,” the topic of Jakob’s Lenten retreat, speaks of Jesus’ ability to live and relate to others at the deepest level.
“We don’t often live where the depth of love is … but I’ve come over the years to really value living there,” he said.
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