Opening Hearts and Minds

May 22, 2003
Opening Hearts and Minds
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
Diocese sponsors a day of awareness for persons with disabilities

“A Chance to Learn From One Another” –– a day of learning and sharing for persons with disabilities and their families –– was held on May 17 at Transfiguration Church in Syracuse. Organized by the Office of Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, the event began with a Mass followed by presentations by disabled persons, their family members, advocates, professionals and caregivers who spoke openly on issues affecting the disabled as well as those affecting the greater community.

Before the presentations began, Tom Cunningham, diocesan director of the Office of Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, shared how his office works on behalf of the disabled community. The committee for the disabled is a network of Catholic advocates, Cunningham said. He added that his office is trying to implement teams to advocate on behalf of disabled persons in each parish. “The good news is that there are over 170 parishes with formal advocates for the disabled. We will work to continue developing them because one person cannot do the job,” Cunningham said to the over 50 people who attended the event.

Kathy Schwanke and her family attended the day of awareness to share how her daughter Katrina’s special needs have affected them. Kathy said that although at times raising a daughter with “special needs” has been challenging, it has been a positive journey. “Yes, at times it has been difficult,” Schwanke said of raising her 16-year-old daughter who has Downs Syndrome. “But I like the growth that I have seen in myself and how the Lord has worked in me through Katrina.” Kathy explained that Katrina is a typical teenage girl who enjoys swimming, soccer, shopping and spending time with her siblings. Sometimes, however, people treat her differently because she doesn’t look like them, Kathy said. She specifically mentioned Katrina’s experience going through the school system. While Katrina attends “regular school” and is taken out for special education classes, there are some teachers who at times have become impatient with Katrina, Kathy said. And no “typical children” have reached out to Katrina, she pointed out.

“Each morning, I watch Katrina get on the school bus and not once has a child sat down next to her,” said Kathy. “It is very frustrating. I’m not sure if, at home, parents are encouraging their children to reach out to children who aren’t typical.” Mary, one of Katrina’s five siblings, added that Katrina has an important place in their family. “Katrina is the glue that holds our family together,” Mary said. “Whenever we see Katrina or hear her voice, it makes us forget about the troubles of the day.” Walt Snyder, who serves as the director of the Fulton Office Person to Person Citizen Advocacy, was one of the panelists who presented the perspective of those groups who work on behalf of disabled persons. Snyder began by informing the audience that citizen advocacy is a volunteer relationship between a “typical person” and a person with a disability.

According to Snyder, his office finds advocates on behalf of persons of all ages with an identifiable disability. There is something for everyone to get involved in, he said. Snyder told of one middle-aged woman who befriended an autistic teenage boy, taking him fishing every week. The woman, at first, did not know what to expect out of the relationship, but it has proved to be worthwhile, he said. Snyder added that people, based on preconceived ideas about people with disabilities, might be afraid to befriend someone with a disability. “Everyone is created equal by God, but when we see other people we may form our own opinions and judgments based on what we see simply because they look different,” he said. “If this makes us not get involved then we are missing out on what may be an amazing relationship.”

He said that the disabled are not the only ones who benefit from the relationship. “Being with a person who has a genuine interest in them raises the self esteem of the disabled person. The volunteer also benefits immensely –– the way he or she views friendship will change forever,” Snyder said. “When the relationship works out it is the most wonderful thing in the world.” He encouraged everyone there, both disabled and “typical,” to search their hearts and see if it is in them to get involved with a disabled person. “What our office does for disabled persons depends on what we can find volunteers to do,” he said. “We can’t do it alone.” Getting involved was a theme reiterated by Cunningham. He told the audience that the goal of the parish advocacy program is for parishioners with disabilities to fully participate in the life of their church community. But the goal cannot be achieved without the help and support of parishioners across the diocese, said Cunningham said.

“When we are able to tap resources to find ways to help those with disabilities instead of wearing all the hats ourselves then we will be better able to serve the individuals with disabilities in the diocese,” he said.

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