“As they said in Field of Dreams, build it and they will come,” says Pat Whaley. But instead of a baseball field, she is referring to a sacramental preparation class for those with special needs at St. Thomas Aquinas in East Lansing. Pat, along with two classroom helpers, teaches a small class on Sunday afternoons to prepare special needs students for communion. “We have children with autism, William’s syndrome, and cognitive impairments,” says Pat, who encountered children at her church who were not enrolled in catechism because of their special needs. “I kept telling their parents that it is so important to get them into religious education, but they were having trouble putting their kids in class. So I went to Annie [Kitching, Director of Religious Education for St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Church] and said that I had found some kids who really needed to be in religious education classes and that I would like to teach them.”
The class has characteristics specifically tailored to children with special needs, although they still cover much of the same material as regular catechism classes. “We have a very set schedule written down on the board,” says Pat, “which is one of the most helpful aspects for the students. We spend a lot of time learning prayers and Bible stories. But when we do, some kids are allowed to sit in the beanbags, some are allowed to lay on the floor. I don’t want to confine them to a chair for too long. We also show a lot of videos so that we can adapt to all of the students’ learning styles. We make sure not to overwhelm them.” In addition to regular classroom time, Pat takes her students to visit the church every month, where they practice sitting in the pews, going into the confessional, and using holy water. “The kids get to touch and see everything up close,” says Pat, which is very helpful to their understanding of the sacrament. The students also practiced receiving communion during every class for an entire year.
Pat regularly receives reassuring feedback regularly from parents. “Most of these parents think that their children will never be able to complete the sacraments, so it’s a beautiful thing to see how genuinely happy they are,” she says, “This class is the answer to their prayers.” Pat particularly remembers the story of one parent who sent her a picture of her student who had picked up a rosary and began praying the Hail Mary. “It was so beautiful to see. When things happen outside of the classroom, that’s when you know you are making a difference.”
So what is the next step for the students, who have already made their communion? “We are working towards preparing them for confirmation in class now,” says Pat. “This is the most amazing group of kids. They are reachable and teachable, so more of these programs need to exist.”
For more information on sacramental preparation classes, for those with special needs in the Lansing area or for information on how to start a program, contact Annie Kitching at 517-351-5460 ext. 325.