Special to The Dialog
Emily Hurst looked at the slice of bread Lynn Lemon held up for the special needs religious education class at Church of the Holy Child.
“Yum yum yum,” Emily said, as Lemon explained to her students that when they are hungry they might eat a slice of bread.
Taking an unconsecrated Communion host, Lemon described it as a different type of bread that at Mass is changed into the Bread of Life, Jesus. When people are hungry “in their hearts,” or spiritually, she told her students, they can receive Communion.
Each of the students sampled a host as well as part of a slice of bread during the simple, straightforward explanation of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The lesson is typical for the diocese’s Religious Education for Persons with Special Needs program in the way it breaks down various aspects of Catholic faith to levels that can be understood by students with disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.
Thirteen students with special needs attend class at Holy Child, in northern New Castle County, or at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bear twice a month. About 30 special needs adults participate in a monthly Faith and Life Community that includes prayer, Bible sharing, and fellowship.
Every spring the program organizes a Celebrate Life Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. During the Mass, which will be on April 22 this year, students who are ready, receive first Communion and confirmation.
Funds from the Annual Catholic Appeal help support the special needs religious education program and more than 30 other ministries in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Those ministries help people with medical, emotional, spiritual, educational and financial needs.
This year the Annual Catholic Appeal, under the theme “Come, Follow Me” — taken from Matthew’s Gospel, 19:21 — aims to raise $4,220,300. Commitment Weekend, when Catholics in the pew are asked to pledge to the campaign, will be April 21-22.
Many students with special needs receive religious education through their parish programs, said Lemon, who has coordinated the special needs religious program since 2009. While parish-based programs are preferable, “some children have unique needs so that their religious ed needs are best met in the diocesan special needs religious education program.”
Ready for sacraments
Emily is an example of the special needs student who benefits greatly from the diocesan classes. Emily’s mother, Julie Hurst, has noticed a difference in her daughter’s behavior at Mass since she was enrolled in the class.
“She’s been more aware. She certainly points to the cross and tries to say ‘Jesus,’” Hurst said.
“Everything is communicated in a way that Emily can understand, which sometimes means breaking down a larger, abstract concept into a simple picture and helping her get the main idea,” Hurst said. The class “truly prepared her for the sacrament of Eucharist a few years ago, and is helping to prepare her for confirmation this year.”
The class also fills a void left by Emily’s public school education since teachers there cannot offer a religious aspect to her education, her mother said. The religious class “allows her to be part of a small, close-knit group of peers, young adult volunteers and teachers who can openly discuss, or communicate sometimes via sign language or an assistive technology device, the teachings of Jesus and how they relate to the experiences in their lives.”
Julie Hurst appreciates the fact that other adults help her family teach the faith to Emily. She believes the class allows special needs children to “feel more confident and more worthy because they are contributing their opinions and feelings to a larger, yet value-oriented group.”
Diane Hahm, who has taught the class for 20 years, sometimes wonders how effective her work is with children like Emily.
“We’ll never know how much she knows because she can’t communicate back,” Hahm said. “We just have to trust in the Lord for that. But she’s at least part of the community and has been dealing with church and community.”
Her experiences with two uncles who were special needs adults prompted Hahm to volunteer for the special needs religious education class at Our Lady of Fatima in New Castle; that class later moved to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Hahm switched to the class at Holy Child about five years ago.
“They’re all very engaged with the spiritual side so much more directly than most adults,” Hahm said. “Sometimes they’re the best pray-ers of all.”
During the recent class one student prayed for the tiger that gets sick in the movie “We Bought a Zoo.” “It’s sad,” the student said.
Another prayed for a cousin “because she is sick,” while a third prayed for “a good year all year until 2013.” Others prayed for their families or specific family members.
Fully included Catholics
Lemon, the special needs religious ed coordinator, has both a special education and religious education background and is the mother of an adult daughter with Down syndrome. She works with the First State School, part of the Red Clay School District in conjunction with Christiana Care, which has 18 students with chronic health problems. She earned her diocesan certification in religious education while a volunteer teacher at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Wilmington.
From her perspective as both coordinator of a special needs program and as a parent of a special needs child, “We know our kids need religious education,” Lemon said. “They need to be fully included members of the Catholic Church. They are certainly God’s children and believe in God and can receive God’s sacraments.”