Faith need of some very special kids at heart of parish program
Story by Jessica Langdon
LEAWOOD — Gerry Boeckmann marvels at how far his 11-year-old son Noah has come in just a few years every time he receives Communion at St. Michael the Archangel Parish here.
“He comes back and he kneels and he points up to the mural with the eye of God,” Boeckmann said of Noah, who has Down syndrome. “It’s incredible.”
He gives a lot of credit for Noah’s blossoming Catholic faith to the people behind a special Sunday-morning class at the parish.
Noah has attended the CARE and Worship program, which takes place during the 10:30 a.m. Mass, since it was created.
CARE and Worship — in which CARE stands for Catholic Alternative Religious Education — is teaching the basics of the faith each week to five students with special needs and preparing some of them for receiving the sacraments.
As it happens, all of the current students are boys and range from kindergarten through sixth grade in school.
Under the direction of parishioner Cari Hillyer and her devoted staff of teachers and helpers, the program delivers the liturgy in concrete ways that are individually tailored to each child’s abilities and needs.
“It turned into so much more than we thought it was going to be,” said Nancy Tjaden, mother of nine-year-old Luke, who has autism and has also attended CARE and Worship since it began.
Before this class was created, Luke’s family had a hard time taking him to Mass, which he had difficulty understanding, as well as sitting through. At the same time, he was aging out of the church’s Our Little Ones Worship program.
As a result, Tjaden and her husband Greg felt they were kept from fully participating in Mass as well, and that meant going separately — one of them taking Luke’s older brother Harry with them.
Hillyer sympathized with their situation.
An active parishioner and a mother herself of a young daughter with special needs, Hillyer was invited several years ago to serve on a special needs committee at St. Michael the Archangel.
When committee members learned of the need for some sort of program for children with special needs, the idea for CARE and Worship took off — with a lot of support from pastor Father Bill Porter and Denise Ogilvie, director of religious education and liturgy.
Instead of simply providing someone to watch the children while their families went to Mass, “we said this should be a meaningful experience for them at whatever level they are,” said Hillyer.
And it has turned into what Tjaden thinks of as a liturgy experience designed especially for Luke and his classmates — and she feels this has finally given Luke his own place in his church.
Each class combines cognitive and physical activities that engage the children in learning about their faith.
Since the program is organized around the liturgical year, Hillyer explained, “they’re hearing the same things that Mom and Dad are hearing in the Mass.
“And then we’re pulling out one little nugget for them to focus on, so then when Mom and Dad see them again, they can talk about the same thing.”
When families first approach Hillyer about enrolling their children in the class, she often asks such technical questions that many people ask if she’s a nurse.
“No,” she answers, “I have a daughter with significant needs.”
Hillyer’s daughter Hannah died at age 10 in 2009, but many people in the parish still remember her bright smile and welcoming spirit, said Father Porter.
Hannah loved music and cherished going to Mass with her mom, her dad Chris and her brother William.
“People felt this connection with her,” Father Porter said.
And families find it easy to connect with Hillyer, as well.
Many friends see Hillyer’s presence every Sunday and dedication to this program as a way to honor Hannah.
Often, families hear her story and feel that she understands their experiences and concerns.
“They have a sense of ‘you’ve heard it all,’” said Hillyer. “There’s not anything new that’s going to surprise me or frighten me.”
She and one of the other teachers of the class, Kristin Brokaw, an occupational therapist, meet with new families first at home, so they can get to know the child and his or her abilities in a comfortable setting.
Each teacher and helper brings his or her own unique perspective and expertise to the classroom, and they maintain constant contact with the families to teach the children in the best ways they can.
Prepare ye the way
And it’s paying off.
“You say, ‘You’re going to church school,’ and once we hit those front doors, he’s gone,” said Heidi Burns of her seven-year-old son Keegan, who can’t wait to get to CARE and Worship. His two-year-old twin siblings tear after him, knowing he has fun there.
Keegan has a rare genetic condition called Angelman syndrome, which results in global delays; he is also a very happy child, another characteristic of the syndrome.
He “absolutely loves” music, said Burns, so the songs interspersed throughout the class are a hit.
“The very first thing we do is music,” explained Hillyer. “They all love music and that sort of gets the wiggles out.”
The group then settles down for prayer at the table, with teachers and adult and youth helpers working one-on-one with each student.
The class sings an alleluia, and then the leaders share a reading, which is usually the week’s Gospel, but sometimes might be the first or second reading if the Gospel is too abstract.
“We typically paraphrase it into a way that would engage them, that they would understand, and then we have some reflection questions that we ask,” said Hillyer.
Next, they bring out the “Bible bag,” which always holds some familiar object that relates to the main concept.
“We try to employ some visual and tactile elements into what we’re doing because it means more to them when they can touch it, feel it, see it,” said Hillyer.
When the kids studied St. John the Baptist announcing the coming of Jesus, for example, they used a megaphone.
Brokaw got chills seeing that lesson really click with Luke.
“He would take the megaphone and he was going around the room saying, ‘Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!’” Brokaw said. “It’s neat. It makes your heart feel good.”
The kids know about the Old Testament and the New Testament, and about the four Gospel writers.
Most importantly, Brokaw said, they know God loves them.
Each class also gives the youngsters something to do — whether it’s making a craft or embarking on a scavenger hunt for crosses in the hallways.
Circle time emphasizes elements they would find on the altar — complete with a plush Mass kit. Soft, stuffed versions of the thurible (the censer in which incense is burned), a chalice and other elements of the Mass help the kids match the words with the objects.
And at the end, they say a five-finger prayer, with each finger representing people like family, friends, doctors, leaders and others for whom the children want to pray.
Preparing for sacraments
Two CARE and Worship students have now received the sacrament of reconciliation and have made their first Communion, and the program is working with more who are interested in sacramental preparation.
Teachers work with the kids on Sundays, and families do a lot of preparation at home, with the help of sacrament kits.
Noah insisted he wanted to receive both the body and the blood at his first Communion, so his dad — a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus at the parish — researched the wine the church uses. Noah touched the cup to his lips at home ahead of time so he would be prepared for what he would taste at church.
It’s important, Hillyer said, for the kids who are preparing for the Eucharist to practice with unconsecrated hosts just like the hosts they will receive during Mass.
There weren’t many dry eyes when the big day arrived.
“I was bawling, of course,” said Hillyer.
Boeckmann’s mother watched as her grandson received his first Communion. It was an opportunity her brother, who had Down syndrome, didn’t have years ago, Boeckmann said.
Noah waved to her as he walked back to his seat.
And soon he will start preparing for confirmation.
“It brings tears,” said Boeckmann. “It’s so enriching.”
Noah now attends the first half of CARE and Worship and then rejoins his family for the rest of Mass.
Noah’s mother, Kim Talbot, loves peeking in and seeing Noah helping his younger classmates.
“I think he’s very much more aware of what goes on in church,” Talbot said. “Cari’s just been a blessing for us because she wants everybody to get as much out of everything as they can.”
“They’re just fabulous people — so giving and loving,” she said.
“Cari” is Luke’s favorite word.
The young volunteers — like 13-year-old Chloe Kallsen and 14-year-old Grace Gearon, who both worked with the class on a recent Sunday with their mothers — get as much from working with this program as they give to it.
And Father Porter sees the program truly filling a need in the parish.
“[The instructors] really, I think, understand how to teach in a way these children understand,” he said.
He knows from his own years in the priesthood that people who have special needs truly grasp the faith they’re learning. He has seen that in the confessional, and even during an emotional moment when Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann knelt in the aisle to confirm a young man. He sees God at work there.
“It’s also a nice thing,” he said, “for the parents to know they aren’t alone — that the church cares for them and there is opportunity for their children to be prepared for the sacraments.”
Every parish, he feels, could benefit from having a program like CARE and Worship — and St. Michael’s is happy to help where it can.
“My files are open to them if they want to take the lesson plans that we’ve done,” said Hillyer, noting that the parish has a curriculum for all three liturgical years.
“You could adapt these for whatever your specific needs are,” she added. “It’s an open door.”
It’s a door that parents of St. Michael’s CARE and Worship kids encourage others to walk through.
“I just feel like all children need the opportunity to experience God, regardless of what their abilities are,” agreed Burns. “And any way that we can reach them is only going to make us, as parents and educators, better people.”