by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — We all need a little help from our friends — some of us more than others during the pandemic.
For families raising children with special needs, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas’ monthly respite care program, BREATHE, was a big help in prepandemic times. It provided parents the perfect opportunity to step away from the rigors of parenting. For the children who attended BREATHE, it was as an opportunity to socialize with old and new friends.
Today, like most things, BREATHE has gone virtual. Yet, new friends are waiting on the other side of the screen.
“All individuals need and desire connection and friendship. Creating communities which support the development of these connections for individuals with disabilities has been a passion of mine for years,” said Kelly Cogan, assistant professor for the school of education at Benedictine College in Atchison.
Cogan and Meredith Doyle, Benedictine’s director of service learning, partnered with the special-needs ministry of the archdiocese to bring BREATHE to Zoom — the online tool connecting colleagues, classrooms, families and more. Cogan’s desire to socially engage people with intellectual disabilities began long before the pandemic.
“It began many, many years ago while I was observing a classroom. In this second grade classroom,” Cogan said, “there was a little boy with autism sitting in the corner eating chocolate bars and sipping soda while his peers engaged in learning, meaningful communication and a sense of community. Since then, I have sought to create programming to support inclusive, supportive, positive programming, even through virtual communities in this time of a global pandemic.”
In Jesus’ words
Cogan encouraged students from her Characteristics of Individuals with Exceptionalities class to participate as part of their service learning component. Her students are learning strategies, interventions and resources for supporting individuals with disabilities.
As such, virtual BREATHE activities are related to quality of life indicators and rooted in spiritual messaging.
Each weekly BREATHE session begins and ends with prayer. Students tie programming to the week’s upcoming Gospel, even choosing a word of the week that relates to the readings.
Likewise, students tie that week’s Gospel reading to real life, teaching “scholars” — as they are called — ways in which they can aspire to live God’s word. Verbal engagement can be a challenge for some scholars, according to Cogan, so students provide them with picture boards to promote communication.
“Personally, I’ve experienced more engagement with the Gospels [through BREATHE],” said Benedictine College school of education sophomore Sara Pavlyak. “During our meetings, we simplify the message so everyone can grasp it. This simplification has helped me revisit my foundational knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. Additionally, seeing the scholars receive the Gospel and get excited about Jesus has given my heart joy.”
Zooming into a new reality
For scholars like 31-year-old Anna Schmitz, the virtual BREATHE sessions are a welcome alternative to COVID-19 closures. Schmitz moved back into her parents’ rural home in March. Prior to the pandemic, she had been living in her own apartment and working two jobs in Manhattan for three years.
“There was more happening in Manhattan socially versus my life now. But I am happy where I am and enjoy being around my friends,” Schmitz said.
Since returning home to live with her parents, Schmitz found a new job working for the Nemaha Central Elementary and Middle School five mornings a week. She has attended multiple virtual BREATHE sessions and has enjoyed seeing participants each week.
One day, she hopes to meet the Benedictine students in person. She has already been on the campus several times and enjoys campus life.
“They are a lot of fun and I like hanging out with them together. Seeing their happy faces makes me light up! I would like to meet them in person,” Schmitz said.
The power of prayer
Schmitz, who said one of the first things she wants to do when the pandemic is over is take her first trip on an airplane, said she uses her time during the sessions to pray for her family.
Prayer is a favorite among many of the scholars, Pavlyak said. After the first BREATHE session, students asked the scholars to share their favorite part of the meeting. One of the scholars immediately answered, “Praying.”
“This response made me realize how special these Zoom meetings were going to be,” Pavlyak said. “After hearing this, I was even more eager to see how God was going to show himself through these meetings.”
As their professor, Cogan couldn’t be prouder of statements like these and the end result.
“My heart is full knowing that new friendships are being forged, parents of scholars have a few minutes each week to breathe (maybe have a moment to relax and have a cup of coffee), and — most importantly — we are bringing joy while spreading the lessons of the Gospel to our scholars,” Cogan said.