Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The students sat at long tables, heads bent over strips of pinkish-purple paper, writing on each one an intention for Lent: “Help My Mom,” “Clean My Room,” “Share.”

In many ways, it’s a scene typical of any Thursday night religious education class. But SonLight is unique — a vibrant community of special needs teens and adults that encompasses eight parishes and four denominations.

“The students really bring us a lot of joy,” said Melody Smith, coordinator for Christian formation at Prince of Peace, Chesapeake. “So often they speak with a purity and a clarity that just astounds you, that you don’t always see every day.”

Bobbi Yaeger, left, a mentor and Mary Marchi, a high school sophomore, work on a handout during the SonLight program. Marchi volunteers at Prince of Peace’s Vacation Bible School each summer, where she teaches children hand motions to VBS songs.

Smith explained that while Prince of Peace encourages full inclusion in all of its religious education classes, the parish offers two other options: SonShine for children ages five through 14, and SonLight, for teens and adults. SonLight serves 9 students.

“Some parents want their kids to have a little bit more,” she said. “They feel as if their children would do better working with someone one-on-one, someone who will be a little more in tune with their child’s needs, especially for those children who are nonverbal.”

Each SonLight student is paired with a mentor. Alex Moss, a senior at Grassfield High School, Chesapeake, has been volunteering with the program for two years. He met SonLight student Seany Gamboa, a freshman at Grassfield High School, at Vacation Bible School two summers ago.

Peter Menrard, center, begins a figurative Lenten journey along paper stones taped to the floor as catechist Jorge Sierra and Melody Smith, coordinator for Christian formation at Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, watch.

“I was his group leader,” Moss said. “He was so much fun; he loved to participate in everything. We just clicked. And we’ve been working together ever since.”

“I promised to take him to Jamaica one day,” he added with a laugh. “He really wants to go to there.”

Distinctly Catholic

Thursday’s class opened with the Hail Mary, read aloud with the aid of folding booklets with bright illustrations. Smith explained that the program is distinctly Catholic, using a curriculum designed by Loyola Press. Many of the materials are interactive, with foam tiles that students can fit into boards or place in order.

“The program places a special emphasis on helping students of all levels to participate in the sacraments,” said Smith, explaining that students who are nonverbal can point to a card or place it into one of the boards. “In the Catholic faith, we believe that the sacraments confer grace, and there are no levels where grace is concerned.”

After the opening prayer, the class launched into a discussion about Lent led by program volunteer Jorge Sierra. They began with the story of how Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

“What came down from heaven, when Jesus was baptized?” Sierra asked.

Emily Dorchak, who attends St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, linked her hands together to form a bird, flapping her fingers.

“That’s right,” Sierra said.  “A dove.”

Sierra told the story of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, and then encouraged the students to reflect on what they might do for their own 40-day journey. Sitting with their mentors, the students either wrote, drew or dictated their intentions, each on a separate paper strip.

As if to remind the adults that Lent, though a solemn season, can just as easily be seen as a time of joy and renewal, the teens couldn’t resist adding an extra intention just for fun now and then.

Hannah Ellenbecker, who volunteers each week at the Prince of Peace food pantry, said she hopes during Lent to help feed the homeless and to get good grades.

“And feed the geese,” she added with a shy smile.

“You can feed the geese, sure,” Sierra said, reassuringly. “They are God’s creatures.”

Gamboa said he plans to try to love everyone, to fast, and to go to Jamaica.

“I’m not sure about going to Jamaica,” Sierra began, as Gamboa and Moss shared a laugh. “Well, maybe one day you guys can go to Jamaica.”

As the students listed their intentions, Sierra stapled the papers together to form a long chain.

“Our intentions keep growing,” he said.

Hannah Ellenbecker, left, of Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, and Emily Dorchak of St. Stephen Martyr, Chesapeake, participate in a class discussion on Lent during a SonLight class. (Photos/Wendy Klesch, The Catholic Virginian)

Participants contribute to parish

Smith explained that when she and Father Romeo Jazmin, pastor at Prince of Peace, sat down to discuss developing the SonLight program three years ago, they decided it would be a priority to offer the class without charge to special needs students of all backgrounds and denominations. All costs for the program are covered by the parish.

“We wanted to be able to offer the program to everyone,” Father Jazmin said.

“Many of the families have medical expenses and so many other unexpected expenses that come with having a special needs child,” Smith said. “We wanted to make sure it was available to all, that cost would not be an issue.”

“What I love about this class, too,” Smith added, “is we don’t try to take them out of their parishes. What they learn here they take back to their own communities and share it there.”

Many of the students, Smith said, are active in various ministries at their churches and parishes. Mary Marchi of Prince of Peace volunteers each summer at Vacation Bible School, teaching children the hand gestures to VBS songs.

Barbara Strebe of Great Bridge Methodist crochets hats and headbands as part of a hospitality ministry, and Kathy Morgan of St. Stephen, Martyr, sorts and organizes bags of toiletries that are distributed to the homeless.

“It’s been a help to the parish,” said Father Jazmin. “The children all bring something to the community; they bring gifts to the altar, they assist at Mass, they give in so many ways.  We are all many parts, and one body.”

Embodies community

At the end of class, students took turns walking down a road made of cut-out paper stones taped to the floor, figuratively enacting their Lenten journeys. Before each student began, the others in line offered smiles of encouragement and resounding high-fives.

“Emily loves coming to the class,” said Mike Dorchak, as he waited for his daughter at pick-up time. “She’s always loved church in general. She has so many friends there.”

Robin Marchi, mother of Mary, also expressed gratitude for the friendships her daughter has developed through the program, citing specifically her previous and current mentors, Sierra Shepherd and Bobbi Yeager, respectively.

“Having a mentor gives Mary the one-on-one attention that she may need, as well as a chance to build relationships with other members of the parish family,” Marchi said

She also noted the opportunities the program has provided for her daughter.

“Mary has been encouraged to help out at church,” Marchi said. “She serves as a candle bearer at Mass and adoration, and is a frequent helper in bringing up the gifts at the offertory.”

“To me, this program really just embodies that sense of community that is so essential to the Catholic faith,” Sierra said. “It’s important to remember that we are all in this together and we are all in this fully.”

Editor’s note: For questions concerning ministries to persons with disabilities or to find support and resources in your area, contact the Diocese of Richmond’s Center for Marriage and Family Life at cmfl@richmonddiocese.org.

A demonstration of an adaptive way of teaching about the sacrament of reconciliation to Catholics with special needs, presented by Melody Smith and Father Rob Cole of St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach, can be found on the Diocese of Richmond’s website at: http://www.cdrcmfl.org/catechetical-resources/.

What the bishops teach

In the case of many people with disabilities, integration into the Christian community may require nothing more than issuing an invitation and pursuing it. For some others, however, full participation can only come about if the Church exerts itself to devise innovative programs and techniques.

At the very least, we must undertake forms of evangelization that speak to the particular needs of individuals with disabilities, make those liturgical adaptations which promote their active participation and provide helps and services that reflect our loving concern.

Full participation in the Christian community has another important aspect that must not be overlooked. When we think of people with disabilities in relation to ministry, we tend automatically to think of doing something for them. We do not reflect that they can do something for us and with us…

People with disabilities can, by their example, teach the non-disabled person much about strength and Christian acceptance.

from the Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities Nov. 16, 1978