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Posted October 23, 2006

Success Stories Well Worth Reduplicating

Special gifts, special projects
part of church ministry with disabled

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At the altar and on the stage, Catholics with disabilities are continuing to make unique contributions to church and society.

And in response, Catholic individuals and organizations are offering special opportunities to those with physical or developmental disabilities and their families.

Bobby Couture, a 36-year-old with a form of autism and some mental disabilities, said being an altar server at the vigil Mass every Saturday at St. Dominic Parish in Swansea, Mass., is one of his favorite things to do.

Before he became an altar server five years ago, "I saw the boys up there and I really wanted to do it too," Couture said. "I wanted to help Father Joe."

Father Joseph F. Viveiros, pastor of St. Dominic, encouraged Couture, who made his first Communion years ago, to receive confirmation before becoming an altar server and is always careful to brief the altar server about any changes in Mass protocol, said Couture's mother, Eileen.

A special part of Bobby Couture's service is that his many friends in the parish -- disabled and not -- see him "exercising his right to witness to the faith," Father Viveiros told The Anchor, newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.

In Philadelphia, 32-year-old Christine Rouse, a Catholic born with cerebral palsy, is helping to provide an opportunity for the creative and artistic expression of teenagers and young adults with physical disabilities through the Acting Without Boundaries program she founded in 2004.

"I believe that there are no boundaries in the world of acting, regardless of one's disability," said Rouse, a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Bryn Mawr, Pa., who has had extensive training in acting from the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped.

The actors who participate in Acting Without Boundaries are no different from their peers without physical disabilities, said Rouse.

"I love to act, and I think it's good for everyone's self-esteem," she said in an interview with The Catholic Standard & Times, the Philadelphia archdiocesan newspaper. "You can be whatever you want to be when you're onstage. And for my actors, it's making dreams come true."

Deacon George Forshay and his wife, Mary, who are members of St. Anthony Parish in Hawthorne, N.J., make another kind of dream come true for children with autism and multiple disabilities by inviting them to their summer home at the beach. "For many of these students, it is their first experience of the shore," said Geraldine Gibbia, co-founder and executive director of the Phoenix Center in Nutley, N.J.

"Some of them have never seen the ocean before, she told The Beacon, newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.

"To see their eyes when they spy a wave for the first time, or catch their first crab or feel the ... breeze on their faces as they zoom in the boat with 'Captain George,' as they call him, this is surely seeing the face of God," she added.

For the past two years, the Forshays and 10 to 12 students and staff members have taken a road trip to Manasquan Beach every Wednesday in July. "Captain George" takes the children for a ride in his speedboat, teaches them to crab and, with his wife, sets up a tent city on the beach.

Mary Forshay prepares a barbecue with hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, watermelon, lemonade and her "very special castle cake," said Gibbia.

Other programs aim to meet the needs of disabled adults by providing work opportunities that will help them function better in the world.

We Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center in West Chicago, Ill., provides employment experience for people 14 and older with mental or physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome.

The project recently received a $10,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

Donna Jarmusz, a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville, Ill., said her own Catholic faith "and my faith in people (have) been strengthened by this experience."

Through the program, individuals with special needs -- called "team members" -- acquire job skills while pruning, watering and planting at the five-acre We Grow Dreams complex.

"People with disabilities have the same desires as everybody else," said Jarmusz, whose 23-year-old son, Justin, has epilepsy and learning disabilities.

"They want to feel a sense of accomplishment, to see the benefits of their work and to feel good about what they are doing. (But) they may need a little assistance along the way to get there," she told the Catholic Explorer, the Joliet diocesan newspaper.

Debra Dobrez, executive director of the fledging Wishing Well organization in Manhattan, Ill., also in the Joliet Diocese, hopes to build a greenhouse as part of her adult day-care facility designed to train adults with mental disabilities to function practically in the world.

"We want them to experience what it's like to nurture something from beginning to end, and see what it becomes," she said. Dobrez, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Manhattan, got the idea for the organization three years ago when her daughter Megan, now 24, was about to graduate from the special education program at a local high school. Megan Dobrez has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disease characterized by a loping gait, excessive smiling or laughing and developmental delays akin to Down syndrome.

Debra Dobrez said she hoped people with all manner of disabilities would come to see Wishing Well as a peaceful haven. "Everyone needs a place where they can feel comfortable," she said.

A desire to make all Catholics comfortable at Mass is what led staff members at the Church of the Nativity in Midland Park, N.J., in the Newark Archdiocese to begin monthly Sunday Masses for the "differently-abled," mostly youngsters and young adults with Down syndrome or autism.

Through the parish's Giving Religious Education With Alternative Teaching, or GREAT, program, Janet Nemec, director of lay ministries, found that many families "were not comfortable attending Sunday Mass due to the behavior of their children."

Father John O'Connell, pastor, told The Catholic Advocate, the archdiocesan newspaper, that he tailors his homilies to the children, telling them that the church is God's house, where they can be comfortable and "be who they are."

The priest sees the Masses as "the perfect opportunity to reach out to God's children and satisfy their (spiritual) needs."

"I get more out of it than they do," he confessed.