Undiscovered Treasures

March 30-April 5,06
Undiscovered Treasures
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
Ministry for Persons with Disabilities Launches New Drive to Increase its Membership

A movement is underway in the Eastern Region of the Syracuse Diocese to give parishioners with disabilities the opportunity to be completely involved in their church community.
Marie Testa, facilitator for the Ministry for Persons with Disabilities in the Eastern Region, and Michelle Bennett, social concerns coordinator at Oneida County Catholic Charities, head the advocacy group. Their mission is to invite, encourage and enable persons with disabilities to participate as Eucharistic ministers, lectors, greeters, ushers, and other ministers, offering them the opportunity to be fully involved in parish life.

Testa and Bennett are launching a campaign to recruit representatives from each parish in the Eastern Region. There are presently nine advocates within the ministry. As part of the advocacy program, the parish advocate assists the parish in meeting the spiritual, social and educational needs of its members with disabilities. The advocate serves as the channel through which parishioners with disabilities and other members of the parish discover each other. Responsibilities include identifying people with disabilities in the parish, sensitizing the parish to the needs and gifts of persons with disabilities and determining access levels of the parish, identifying existing resources and unmet needs. Additional responsibilities include welcoming parishioners with disabilities and their families and/or caregivers to participate fully in parish life and programs, making referrals to appropriate agencies or diocesan offices and maintaining contact with the Diocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities.

Testa and Bennett would like to secure at least one advocate from each parish. “Not only are we hoping that each parish would have an advocate, but also that the advocate would be a parish council member in order to open the lines of communication concerning the needs of the disabled,” said Bennett. The ministry meets the fourth Monday of each month at the Mt. Carmel Apartments in Utica. A brochure encouraging people to participate in the persons with disabilities ministry will be distributed to parishes in the region within the next few weeks. “We will be asking the pastors to make an announcement at the Masses, encouraging people to respond,” said Testa. “The brochures will be located at the entrance of each church.”

Testa has been involved in the ministry for six years. “The people in this ministry are very dedicated,” remarked Testa. “The group includes people who have disabilities themselves, and also caregivers. Two of the women in the group have sons who have disabilities. There’s a deep interest. We need to exert more effort to get the persons with disabilities involved in the life of the church. Part of the problem is identifying the disabled persons in the parishes. You can’t send out a survey asking people if they are disabled.”

A parishioner of St. John’s Church in Utica, Suzanne Tranquille is a member of the Ministry for Persons with Disabilities. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of eight, Tranquille is severely disabled from polio. She said life has been a struggle, but it has also been filled with blessings. The support she received from her loving family enabled her to hold the position of math teacher in the Utica school system for 21 years.

Tranquille also manages to stay involved in the life of her parish. “I try to be involved as much as I can,” she said. “I can’t get to Mass every week, but I have communion brought to me in my home and I watch the Masses that are televised.” Every summer, Tranquille helps her parish by composing flyers on her computer to advertise an annual event at the parish. “My life in church is very important to me,” she reflected.

Tranquille would like to see some changes made in the parishes so that persons with disabilities could feel more involved. She believes transportation is the biggest problem confronting the disabled. “We are always looking for people to drive,” she said. “People that are hard-of-hearing have trouble hearing the homily at church. These people would feel more included if something could be done where they could read the words in some way.”

Tranquille believes that in the future, churches should be constructed without any steps leading to the altar, so that people in wheelchairs could have easy access to it, thereby enabling them to participate as a lector. Tranquille also said it is difficult for many persons with disabilities to access social events in churches because they are often held in church basements.

She also thinks its important to include the mentally handicapped in church services. “Jesus would have made people who feel different from everyone else feel welcome and comfortable,” said Tranquille. The number of Catholics in the U.S. with a physical, mental or sensory disability exceeds 14 million. Many of these people have an invisible disability, one that is not outwardly noticeable. Invisible disabilities can include medical conditions such as diabetes, AIDS/HIV, cardiac conditions, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cancer, osteoporosis and glaucoma. Roseanne Tewksbury, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in Rome began to experience difficulty in walking and her vision began to deteriorate in 2000. Her options then became limited as far as the places she could go to and how she could get there. During the first two years of her deteriorating health, her husband helped her complete simple chores. However, after her husband became ill and passed away, Tewksbury had to come up with solutions to everything she needed to do. “Being handicapped made me slow down and find peace,” said Tewksbury. “I saw that I could do everything maybe a little differently and a little slower, but nonetheless, I could still do them. I learned to face my fears and conquer them. Everything I do and every challenge I face is a gift from God. “Before this happened to me, I would look at people who couldn’t walk or had trouble walking and say ‘this will never happen to me — that’s never going to happen to me,’” she said. “I was wrong. We all need to turn everything that we bear over to Jesus. He will take care of us.”

Testa said that a workshop is planned for people who are interested in joining the ministry. The event will provide an opportunity for the advocates to learn about disabilities and about local agencies that provide services to the disabled. “The workshop helps allay the fears people might have regarding working with a person with a disability,” said Testa.

Bennett has been involved with the concerns of the disabled for three years. She agrees that there is a sense of uncertainty in encountering a person with disabilities. “Many times, people are afraid to approach disabled people, not knowing how to approach them or what to say,” Bennett said. “It’s important to approach a disabled person in the same way you would approach a person who is not disabled. You should respond to the person, not the condition.”

For further information about the Ministry for Persons with Disabilities, call Michelle Bennett at (315) 724-2158 Ext. 250 or Marie Testa at (315) 733-7049.

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