By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — With glowing eyes, children, teenagers and young adults sat, listening raptly, as a young woman read the story of the journey Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus in a stable, Golden Book version. A moment of silence as she finished the story, then came the sound of soft sighs of pure joy. It was the Christmas gathering of SPRED at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, held Dec. 13.
SPRED, Special Religious Development, is a program of Catholic Charities Disability and Deaf Ministry, which designs religious education specifically to meet the spiritual needs of children and adults with developmental disabilities. Trained, volunteer catechists help prepare a special place of welcome and friendship to help participants experience a sense of belonging, discover meaningful relationships, and realize their own giftedness and dignity. At St. Charles, SPRED meets in the basement of the parish offices, a large area furnished with book cases overflowing with children’s books, calendars and toys, tables, chairs, sofas and a rocking chair, all warmly lit by lamps.
The St. Charles group, participants and catechists alike, form a small community of faith, which enables persons with developmental disabilities to celebrate the sacraments and enter into the worship experiences of the Church as a whole. They meet 24 times a year. The Dec. 13 meeting brought together a group of friends and family who played and relaxed together, listened to the Word of God together, prayed together and shared “agape”, a meal.
Casey, Allen, Nick, Kristin, Henry and Jacob, who range in ages from 8 to young adult, spent the first half hour relaxing with an individual activity, designed to calm their energy levels. Calendars featuring photos of trains or scenery were perused, model cars and trucks zoomed over the carpet, blocks were built into towers and knocked over, then rebuilt, and individual toys were played with quietly, but gleefully. Bishop Robert W. Finn, a guest for the meeting, got down on the floor to watch the cars and trucks zoom around his feet for a while before crossing the room to laugh with an older boy who was leaving impressions of his face and hands on an impression toy, and getting a real kick out it.
The bishop knew at least one of the participants already — Kristin was confirmed by Bishop Finn several years ago, and she welcomed him to the meeting with delight. One participant was absent — Henry was attending his sister’s band concert.
The other guests of the evening, Father Joseph Totten pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish; Sara Kraft, parish communications coordinator and photographer; Jude Huntz, chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Judy Shute, Catholic Charities Disability and Deaf Service Program Coordinator and Sam Santee, Catholic Charities Disability and Deaf Services SPRED Advocate, watched and talked to Jim Cleary, parish coordinator for SPRED.
SPRED was started in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1960s, and over the years, picked up by more than 50 dioceses in different countries including Great Britain, Malta, Australia, Mexico, South Africa and the Archdiocese of Chicago, the dioceses of Worcester, Mass.; Charlotte, N.C.; Scranton, Penn.; Arlington, Va., and Kansas City-St. Joseph in the United States.
SPRED was introduced at St. Charles as a pilot program by Father Tom Borkowski, then pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, in 1981. The eight current participants come from St. Charles, Holy Family, St. Therese-Parkville and Good Shepherd parishes.
There are five SPRED centers within the diocese: the St. Joseph area for participants aged 6 -10; St. Catherine of Siena Center, south Kansas City, for ages 22 and older; St. Thomas More Center, Kansas City, ages 22 and older, St. Therese north Center, Parkville, for ages 22 and older, and St. Charles Center, all ages from 6 to adult.
Cleary first got involved with the SPRED program 19 years ago and has since taken on the parish coordinator role. He lovingly treats each person, child or adult, as though it his privilege to know them.
The catechists, Mandi, Jenny, Julie (Jacob’s mom), Cathy and Cleary, worked closely with the participants, assisted by Sam Santee and parent observer Tricia (Allen’s mom). Cleary said the goal is one catechist to one participant, and he usually worked with Jacob. Jacob is 100 percent visually impaired with no verbal skills. While he responds well to Cleary, that night his mom never left his side.
After the calming activity, and a few moments of music (a song about Baby Jesus and Santa Claus), the group moved quietly to the Holy Room, a section of the center furnished with sofas, a rocking chair and other comfortable chairs around a round table. Cleary presented the Golden Book Nativity story to one of the catechists, and the room grew very quiet, but filled with anticipation.
Jacob sat on his mom’s lap in the rocking chair during the reading, listening, his hands exploring his surroundings. One hand reached out and found Bishop Finn’s hand. The bishop gently clasped Jacob’s hand and the two sat quietly for a moment, listening to the Nativity story, little hand in big hand.
As the book was closed, Cleary started the CD player and a rollicking song by Alvin and the Chipmunks filled the center. It was time for spontaneous expression. The little ones danced together, the older boys danced alone and Kristin danced with her catechist and with Cleary.
Agape, a treat of cookies and fruit juice or water, was blessed by Bishop Finn, and politely but eagerly taken by the participants. Everyone helped clean up and put the room to rights, then donned coats and jackets and, after goodbye hugs, went home.
Cleary was all smiles as he straightened the bookshelves and picked up a stray toy car.
He commented on the meeting. “Despite the crowded room, it went very well in my opinion. It really is an excellent program that serves the disadvantaged who otherwise would not receive sacraments, or be welcomed in church and the like. Those of us involved get more out of it than what we ever put into it. Some nights go as planned (like tonight for the most part). Other nights, not so well overall, but they are still a success.”
It was difficult to tell who enjoyed the evening more, the participants or the guests. Truly it was a special religious evening.