While many families take time to plan their vacations, my family plans for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. Yes, this is a family affair. My husband and I attend and my son and mom stay home, but we need to make sure that nothing else is planned that weekend so that we can leave home and not worry. But, this year we agree that our son will be old enough to attend with us next year and Mom will definitely come with us; she needs to experience congress too.
This year, I had the opportunity to sit in on eight workshops. All different, and all chosen by me for a different reason. I chose my workshops carefully. I am a wife, a mom, a catechist and most importantly a Catholic who wants to learn. As the mom of a special-needs child and a catechist I wanted to sit in on a workshop that would help me teach children with special needs. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a workshop titled: ALL ARE WELCOME: CATECHESIS & SPECIAL NEEDS by Dr. Joseph White and Ana Arista.
I went into this session with an open heart and an open mind. I understand from personal experience that all special-needs children are different and we need to make sure to give them the unique attention and service they require. Dr. White explained to us the different needs we as catechists may come across. He made sure to give the audience tips on how to address and approach each child and make sure to not stick to one teaching method, because what works for one child may not work for another. Also, he made sure to tell us to include all children in whatever activity we have planned. Granted, adjustments may need to be made due to the child’s needs. One of the things he was adamant about was to point out and praise the work the child is doing and let the parents know the positive things the child has said and done in class.
In the special-needs community, as parents we tend to hear all the things our children need to improve upon, goals they need to meet, the steps we need to take to achieve these goals. To have an adult that is spending time with the child and hear positive feedback is a huge comfort and a shot in the arm every single one of us parents need.
One other very important thing Dr. White mentioned is that when a special needs child comes into the class, the catechist is advised to ask the church community for help. You may find a parishioner who is a special needs teacher, therapist, an aide or even a student at a local university who is willing to help with this child in class. We as parents are exhausted; our world is our child and making sure they are comfortable, that they have everything they need to avoid a meltdown or a crisis, if you will. If we can be given a break for the period of time a religious education class lasts, we would greatly appreciate it. As catechists, we have a voice and we should not be afraid to use it. There are many ways to ask for help and to reach our church community and there is always someone willing to help. The parent should not be expected to sit in and be the child’s one-on-one aide.
One of the most beautiful examples of how Dr. White’s teaching methods helped a child was in a story he shared. He and Ana were religious education teachers and they had one little boy who has ADHD and was just a handful. He was just that child that could not sit down and follow directions. Well, at the end of the year they handed out SAINT AWARDS; each child got an award with a saint’s name. This particular little guy got the SAINT PETER AWARD with a certificate and the Saint’s Medal. Well, the little guy and his parents were excited to have received this award; you see, our kids aren’t the ones coming home from school with awards, so for them to get recognition is huge. As this little boy grew he kept his Saint Peter medal with him and always remembered his award and what that meant to him. He is now a grown man and still wears a Saint Peter medal.
We have the ability to make an impact on every single member of the church, because regardless of their abilities, they are children of God. Our job as catechist is to teach them their faith and prepare them to receive their Sacraments and participate in the beauty of Mass.
Ana Arista was a DRE for a parish in Texas. She was there to tell us what is required for a child to receive the sacraments. There are certain guidelines that must be followed when teaching special needs individuals; those guidelines can be found here. Every child has the right to receive their sacraments, but we as catechists need to make sure we teach them so they have some understanding and the guidelines provided by the bishops are what are followed.
Ana shared many of her different experiences as a DRE and servicing parents with special-needs children. One was of a child with severe celiac disease, he was preparing for his First Holy Communion and was on a gluten-free diet, allowed no wheat and with other dietary restrictions. They needed to make accommodations for a special Host for him. They were able to provide this child what he needed and he was able to receive his First Holy Communion.
Another story shared by Ana was of a mom who had visited different parishes in hopes of enrolling her son. She was turned away from many places; her child was deaf and had other diagnoses as well. Ana opened her program to this family and they learned as they went. This child learned what the Eucharist was and would sign “Jesus” and “more.” The day of his First Communion arrived the priest was informed of this little boy and how he may stand there signing “MORE JESUS.” The priest said, “Don’t worry; everything will be fine.” After all the months spent preparing him for this special day, Ana and his mom stood on the side of the church, ready to step in if needed. What they witnessed when he received the Eucharist for the first time shocked them. This little boy took the Eucharist, put it in his mouth, saw his mom off to the side, ran to her and spoke his first words: “MOMMA–JESUS!” God works in beautiful ways; this story had me in tears, the miracle of the Eucharist.
This is just a part of what Los Angeles Religious Education Congress taught me. There are so many more things to do, see and experience. Everyone should experience it once, and it is open to the public, not just Catholics that are in a ministry. Look for next year’s dates and make sure to set the date aside and come join us. I guarantee you will leave the event on FIRE!
Copyright 2015 Nelly Guajardo
Logo courtesy of LA Religious Education Congress