Volunteer experience moves new special-needs consultant into his vocation

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Tom Racunas has never had a bad day in the six- plus years he’s worked in special-needs ministry.

In fact, he describes it as “the most satisfying work” he’s ever done.

But Racunas wasn’t always interested in ministry work.

Initially a history and anthropology major in college, it wasn’t until he began dating his now-wife Becki, a special education major, that his eyes were opened to the world of helping those with special needs.

He began volunteering with Becki at a Missouri hospital during their college years and immediately felt a sense of peace.

“I thought, ‘I love this. I love these people,’” he said. “It just felt right.”

Racunas traded in the history books for a career in special education. And what started out as a love for his work turned into a lifelong vocation.

After dedicating 36 years of his life to special education in the public school system, Racunas was ready for the next chapter in his life.

“I had always considered my work in public schools as an apostolate,” he said.

In keeping with that mission-centered lifestyle, Racunas accepted a position as director of the ministry of persons with disabilities for the Diocese of Wichita.

And the plethora of knowledge he gained from serving the community there for six years was just what the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas was searching for when it began the process of expanding its own ministry for those with special needs.

The search began, said Father Gary Pennings, vicar general and director of the department of parish ministries, after the archdiocese hosted a number of listening sessions in which families who have a member with developmental or physical disabilities shared the challenges they sometimes face.

As a result, he said, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was moved to do more to better serve those with special needs.

“We had heard much about the good work that Tom Racunas had done in Wichita, so the [archdiocesan] task force contacted him for guidance,” said Father Pennings.

“To our great fortune, we discovered that Tom was planning to move to Kansas City and was open to helping the archdiocese establish this new ministry,” he continued.

Racunas is now the new lead consultant for the special-needs ministry office here in the archdiocese, and the work he accomplished in Wichita will likely guide his path here.

“The mission of the [Wichita] office was to support parishes in ensuring that people with disabilities — regardless of age, onset, type or severity of disability — were still fully included in the life of the parish,” said Racunas.

He described his former role as a “resource broker” who was there to help families with unmet needs and to raise awareness and create programs within parishes.

The ministry offered a reading service for The Catholic Advance, the newspaper for the Diocese of Wichita, as well as a signed Mass once a month. It also provided seasonal retreats for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

With experiences like these, Racunas has high hopes for enhancing the archdiocese’s outreach.

“I want this office to be dynamic,” he said. “I want it to be sustainable.

“I want it to make a difference in the lives of our families and in the life of each parish.”

The immediate need, he said, is for people to realize that he’s here, the office is open and the archdiocese is ready to listen to the needs of our parishes.

A piece of advice Pope Francis gave at a Mass for the Year of Mercy jubilee of the sick and persons with disabilities this past June is a constant reminder of why Racunas does what he does.

“Each of us, sooner or later, is called to face — at times, painfully — frailty and illness, both our own and those of others,” the pope said.

“The world does not become better because only apparently ‘perfect’ people live there . . . but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase,” the pope continued.

Although aspects of Racunas’ work can be challenging, his wife and three daughters — Lisa, Allison and Kate — are a constant support system.

And the love he has for the people he works with makes every aspect of his work a blessing.

“What I’ve found with some of our people who experience disability is they teach me such wonderful lessons,” he said.

“[People with disabilities] don’t care about what you do or how much money you make or what you’re wearing or who your family is,” he added. “It’s about being together and being in the moment.

“That’s just such an incredible lesson.”

For more information on the special-needs ministry, contact Racunas at (913) 647-0348 or by email at: tracunas@archkck.org.

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