Tailor made

Four young adults with special needs are confirmed through the SPAR program
By claudia mathis / SUN staff writer

“It’s an answer to my prayers,” said Joanne Heyman, mother of Megan, a 16-year-old with Down’s syndrome. Heyman was referring to SPAR (Special Needs Adult Religious Formation Programs), a program that made it possible for her daughter to participate in a catechetical program designed for older teens and adults with developmental disabilities. Megan’s participation in the SPAR program enabled her to receive the sacrament of confirmation.

As the time approached for Megan to make her confirmation, her mother worried that Megan’s learning disability would make it difficult for her to learn in a traditional classroom setting.

After completing the SPAR catechetical program over the last year, Megan and three other young people received the sacrament of confirmation this spring. In addition to Megan, John Bettis and Nancy Ryan were confirmed on May 12 at a special ceremony at Holy Family Church in Syracuse.

Katrina Schwanke, who also completed the special confirmation class, was confirmed at her parish, St. Charles Borromeo in Syracuse during the Saturday Easter Vigil in April. Katrina, who is 20 years old and has Down’s syndrome, has been involved in the program for the last two years.

The catechetical program for those with special needs began in the fall of 2005 with the arrival of Sister Theresann Gehringer, DSMP, and Sister Barbara Moerman, DSMP, to the Syracuse area. The two sisters were sent as a result of the efforts of Mary Lou Coon, parishioner at Holy Family Church in Syracuse, and the diocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities. Coon asked Sister Patricia McCafferty, DSMP, provincial supervisor of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence based in Chicago, if she could send two sisters to the area to serve the disabled. Sister Patricia consented and Bishop James Moynihan approved the plan to provide catechetical instruction to the developmentally disabled.

Eventually, Sister Caryn Hass, DSMP, replaced Sister Barbara in the execution of the SPAR program. Sister Barbara’s assistance was needed back in Chicago with her order.

Sister Theresann has led the SPAR program for the last two years. “It’s been exciting to begin something new to benefit those with special needs,” said Sister Theresann. “It’s also our aim to work within the group homes in the area. We’ve already started to work in the homes that are located within the Holy Family Parish.”

To prepare the four individuals this year for confirmation, Sister Theresann, Sister Caryn and several volunteers worked with the students on a one-to-one basis, using the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Mental Retardation as the curriculum. Sister Theresann said the program is important because it offers mentally disabled people a less-structured way to learn. Small group or one-on-one sessions in the sacramental program are offered for those individuals whose disabilities have made classroom learning difficult. The group met weekly at St. Ann’s Parish from Oct. 3-May 15.

“We studied the virtues in a more simplified manner, at a level that the students could grasp,” explained Sister Theresann. Sister Caryn said that things such as music, arts and crafts and sports were integrated into the curriculum to reinforce the information they learned.

Sister Theresann said that when she worked with student John Bettis, she used sports to make the information relevant. Ruth Bettis, John’s mother, is very happy with the results of her son’s participation in the SPAR program. “I think the sisters should be commended,” said Bettis. “They were so creative in getting the message of God across to him. Sister Theresann made him laugh and he felt accepted. I had given up on having him confirmed. We talk about religion a lot more now and it has united our family.”

Marcia Ryan, parishioner at Holy Family and mother of confirmation student Nancy Ryan, is extremely grateful for the SPAR program. “I have been searching for a program like this for years,” Ryan said. “It was a great experience for my daughter. The sisters are compassionate, loving and understanding.”

While working with Nancy, Sister Theresann utilized music — specifically a drum — to teach her about the church and God. “I took clues from her facial expressions and movements,” said Sister Theresann. “I could see that she enjoyed music.”

The SPAR ministry also offers a Continuing Formation Program. In an attempt to foster fellowship with their parish family and deepen their faith, “Evenings of Celebration” have been held throughout the year at Holy Family Parish.

In addition, SPAR sponsored a “Let’s Celebrate Day to Pray and Play” retreat at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles on April 28.

Although Sister Theresann and Sister Caryn have primarily ministered within Holy Family and Most Holy Rosary Parishes, they are open to consulting with people in the areas of the diocese that they have not reached yet. For more information about the program, email Sister Theresann at dsmpy@yahoo.com.

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