STANDING UP FOR LIFE Deacon David Arias, ordained this August, and his wife Maria are sharing their story of how they chose life for their 18-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome, Evelyn. Evelyn herself asks people to vote "No" on pro-abortion Proposition 1 (click here to see the video), which will be on the ballot on Nov. 8.
Deacon David Arias, ordained this August, and his wife Maria, have a passion for the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn and those with disabilities. It is inspired by their personal journey of raising three children with special needs, including their 18-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who has Down Syndrome.
Almost 20 years ago, David and Maria Arias received the joyful news that they were finally expecting a child, after five difficult years of being unable to conceive. A few months into the pregnancy, however, they found out that Evelyn would have developmental problems and they say they were encouraged to abort her.
“[The doctors] really scared us. They told us she could be born dead, die immediately after birth or be in a vegetable state ... they give you the most terrible picture you could have,” said Maria. “They practically said that it was a better choice not to have the baby.”
“But we just said ‘no, ‘because this is our baby. We felt her moving and we just knew that this was our child,” she said.
David and Maria hope that their story of choosing to have Evelyn can be used as an inspiration that all children are valuable, with or without special needs. Their story has special resonance now, when California voters will be seeing pro-abortion Proposition 1 on their ballots this November.
Evelyn recorded a video message which was posted to Facebook, in which she says, “I am pro-life. I ask that you vote ‘No’ on Proposition 1. Please help us protect innocent lives.” (Click here to see the video.)
When Evelyn was born and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, the couple was told that they could give her to a state facility if they didn’t want to keep her. David and Maria chose to keep and raise her, themselves.
“We were just told the easy, quick solution for society: Get rid of this child. Don’t deal with it. And we would have never had the opportunity to learn what it would entail to have a child with disability,” said Maria. “I would never give that up. Because we have cried, we have suffered, we have had tears of frustration, but we have also had tears of joy. It made us who we are now.”
David admitted that it was not an easy time. “It was tough. I’m not going to say I was rejoicing; I was questioning God, asking why,” he said.
“I didn’t understand the purpose then, but now I understand why he gave us a daughter like that: it changed my whole perspective to see society, to see life, even the whole perspective to see Christ in life. You see through another type of eyes, with compassion, with being humble,” said Deacon Arias.
David and Maria were determined to take the very best care of Evelyn by giving her occupational therapy and education suited to her abilities. But they were met with hurdles from the beginning. “Parents of children with special needs are in battle with the school districts, because school districts would rather place our children in a little box and forget about them. We have to fight a system that believes that these children are worth nothing,” said Maria.
“I’ve had special education teachers ask, ‘Why would you want them to learn how to read? They’re not going to be able to do anything anyways.’ They think that because they have a cognitive disability, it’s not worth spending our funds. It’s not worth wasting our time,” she said.
Unfortunately, the inability to accommodate special needs children can happen in a church setting as well, according to David and Maria. When they attempted to enroll Evelyn in sacrament preparation classes at their parish, Sacred Heart in Rancho Cucamonga, about a decade ago, they said they were told that unless Evelyn could sit in the class and learn the material like the other children, she could not receive her First Communion. The couple would not give up without a fight and went to the pastor.
With their advocacy, the parish was able to start a special education sacrament preparation class so that Evelyn and some other special needs children from the parish could learn the faith in a way tailored to their abilities and ultimately receive the sacraments.
This experience inspired David and Maria to found a ministry for parents of children with a disability called AGAPE at their parish. The ministry is divided into two parts: first, to educate parents of children with disabilities to know their rights when it comes to special education law, and second, to provide spiritual support and to make parents feel welcomed in a Church which so often makes them feel as if they and their children are not welcome.
“Many parents are turned away or hurt by the Church. They lose faith or lose trust in the Church,” said David. “In many ways, they feel lonely. They feel that not even Church is there for them.”
After founding AGAPE, David and Maria eventually felt called to join diaconate formation so that when they told a parent of a child with a disability that they were an important part of the Church, it would be coming from an ordained clergyman and his wife. “They don’t see Maria and David. Now they see the Church, working, walking, accompanying,” explained David.
“When Bishop Rojas asked me why I want to become a deacon, I said, ‘Because I want to be the face of the Church. I want to be the bridge between the church and the people,’” said David.
“Sometimes people need someone to just listen,” he said.
David and Maria had two more children after Evelyn, a 16-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, who also have special needs. Despite the challenges that raising a special needs child brings, it also comes with unimaginable blessings, said the couple.
“[Special needs children] bring out the best in you. They bring out the strength, the passion, the love, the humility, the compassion ... they’re full of gifts, and they make you discover in yourself all these gifts,” said David.
“You can see the grace of the Lord in them. In the difficult times, in the moments when they push you down, you see the Lord working in you, giving you peace. Christ is always there, Christ is always showing us his mercy, his love, his way. It’s really rewarding,” he added.