Special Needs Workshop inspires parish DREs to reach a "forgotten population"

North Texas Catholic
(May 24, 2024) Local

Jason Whitehead at whiteboard

Jason Whitehead, director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Fort Worth, leads a Special Needs Workshop for parish DREs to learn the most effective methods of catechesis and sacramental preparation for those with disabilities, on May 16, 2024, at the Catholic Center. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


FORT WORTH — It may seem like an ordinary cotton tee with a large graphic heart at the center.

But on the third Monday of every month at St. Michael Parish in Bedford, parishioners wear the shirt promoting the “God’s Own Children” ministry logo on their chests with pride as they worship at the ministry-organized Special Needs Mass.

“They all have the same logo, but they’re all in different colors because everybody got to pick their own shade. And that’s what we wanted to show in our ministry: We all have different disabilities, different whatever,” ministry facilitator Sandy Steves said to a group of about 50 directors and teachers of faith formation. “But we’re all also the same.”

God’s Own Children ministry was featured at the diocesan Special Needs Workshop at the Catholic Center on May 16 to provide a “concrete model and to inspire you and to ignite ideas as to how you at your parish can foster a culture open to ministering to those with special needs,” said Diocesan Director of Evangelization and Catechesis Jason Whitehead to the attendees filling the conference room.

The Church, Whitehead affirmed, has been working to address how kids and adults with disabilities get initiated into the sacraments and welcomed into the faith.

As Whitehead walked the DREs through the beginning pages of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2017 revised “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” he pointed out the document “mentions explicitly that our outreach as the Church to those with special needs goes beyond the sacraments and to the entirety of parish life.”

Sandy Steves
Sandy Steves, of God's Own Children Ministry for St. Michael Parish, presents at a Special Needs Workshop for parish staff to learn the most effective methods of catechesis and sacramental preparation for those with disabilities, on May 16, 2024, at the Catholic Center. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The Bedford ministry, which Whitehead said addresses a “forgotten population” — those with disabilities who are too old for early intervention but still need support, goes “far beyond merely teaching; it is about fully initiating all people of all ages with all special needs into parish life.”

Early into the Q&A session with the panel of St. Michael staff and Whitehead, one participant asked for insight into working with a set of parents who didn’t or couldn’t bring their disabled child to RCIA classes consecutively enough to finish the program.

“It feels like a battle. I’m there trying to help them solve the problem that their child is not baptized, but it's so hard because they can’t grasp all of the sacraments at one time,” she shared.

Whitehead promptly responded that according to the USSCB guidelines, the child needed to be baptized. “In the Special Needs guidelines in front of you, due to the importance of baptism, absolutely without exception, please go get that child baptized,” he firmly stated.

Another participant expressed her gratitude to the St. Michael panel for sharing their experience: “Thank you for inspiring us because, at my [parish], we try to do everything ourselves, and it gets very overwhelming. How can we get more of you to inspire other people to volunteer?”

A fellow participant and Director of Faith Formation at St. Patrick Cathedral Maria Rosales responded to the question from her table: “My advice for directors is to talk to the parents. … Work with the families. Talk. You’re going to find Sandys out there because they want what’s best for their child, and they’ll open up to you.”

Rosales described how, as a mother to a son with Down syndrome, she left her 25-year career as a public school teacher to work at the Cathedral because of her own vested interest in helping other families who were hesitant in assisting their disabled children receive their sacraments.

“I have had several families come to me and tell me they weren’t able to complete their child’s sacramental preparation because [the child] was nonverbal and had been turned away. It broke my heart,” Rosales said. “I tell them, ‘No, we’re not going to keep them from receiving their sacraments because they’re nonverbal or they’re this or that. Let me work with you.’”

Near the end of the session, Whitehead reminded attendees “how flexible the Church is in order to meet the spiritual needs of these families” before guiding the formation leaders through the rest of the USCCB’s guidelines.

A father to a son with autism, Whitehead shared a heartfelt plea to the contemplative crowd: “Many of our families are, frankly, just trying to survive. So what can we do? We know we can open our arms by opening our doors with a Mass for them. … I hate to sound like Field of Dreams, but if you build it, they will come.”

Diocese of Fort Worth, God's Own Children, special need workshop, disability,, trending-english