“This has been a blessing for all of us,” said Emily Guilherme, director of catechetical ministry at St. Mel. “We can do anything to bring the love of Christ to them and show that the church is for all.”
West, a Brea resident, has been offering a faith formation program for those with special needs for 10 years in the Diocese of Orange.
The specialized class offers those with special needs the opportunity to receive religious education, sacramental preparation and fellowship. The class takes place during the 5 p.m. Mass on Saturdays. Parents are able to attend Mass while the students are in session.
“It’s an opportunity for fellowship with other families,” West said. “It’s good for families to see that our Church is open to receive all who want to participate.”
Working alongside others who work with special needs children, West mirrored the program after other special needs education models to help make the atmosphere more familiar to the students. Each student is paired with a teaching aide who guides the student through the different activities.
“They already know the routine at school,” West said. “Instead of teaching reading, writing and math, we teach Jesus, Church and friendship. It has been successful.”
Youth confirmation students and young adults are trained to serve as aides for the sessions. Several youth who have already been confirmed have returned to the program to help in the special needs ministry.
The catechetical ministry has seen an increase in registrations this year as a result of the program, particularly among Hispanics.
“There are more that are coming forward,” Guilherme said. “Sometimes we don’t realize there is a need out there.”
While providing faith formation opportunities for those with special needs is not something new, it is not regularly offered at parishes. The diocesan Office of Catechetical Ministry recommends First Eucharist and Reconciliation preparation for autistic children/youth by Loyola Press and Friendship Ministries as resources for parishes that are interested in developing formation opportunities for parishioners with special needs.
West first started the special needs ministry in the Diocese of San Bernardino after a family from St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Corona who had heard about the program in the Diocese of Orange approached her.
“The parish has always been inclusive, no matter a person’s ability,” said Margaret Miller, Coordinator of Catechetical Ministry at St. Mary Magdalene in Corona.
After an evaluation of the program, the special needs ministry was incorporated into the overall catechetical program at the small parish.
“We work with the families so that everyone can receive sacramental preparation in an inclusive environment,” Miller said.