Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Forty years ago, Lorayne Olson was struggling to find religious formation classes suitable for her then 10-year-old daughter Katherine, who has Williams syndrome — a rare developmental disorder enveloping a wide range of conditions, from intellectual disabilities to heart disease to unique physical characteristics. 

Lorayne had eight children and worked to treat all of them, including Katherine, the same. However, in the world at large, Katherine wasn’t always treated the same. She was stared at, misunderstood and judged. Her mother wanted to find a safe place for her daughter and others to learn about life and God. 

She wrote to Bishop Walter Sullivan and told him the diocese needed a religious education program tailored to people with developmental, intellectual, psychological and physical disabilities as there were many families like hers searching for support. 

He wrote her back and assigned a priest, Fr. Ron Ruth (deceased) of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Richmond, to help her. A survey conducted throughout the diocese showed this was a needed and wanted program. Soon, Outreach in Love was born. 

In the beginning, Outreach in Love met a few times a year for Mass in various churches across the diocese. A group of retired religious sisters from South Africa who lived in Bon Air offered their basement as a gathering place. The Knights of Columbus volunteered rides to and from meetings. Participants were given the opportunity to learn and finally celebrate their first Communion, reconciliation and confirmation in a nurturing environment, allowing them to become full members of the Catholic Church.

‘A blessing for everyone’

The program grew over the years from a handful of participants to more than 120, opening its doors to all who wanted to enter. Now there are weekly meetings at St. Edward the Confessor Parish, Richmond, for children and adults, as well as classes focused on sacraments.

Adults, ranging in age from 22-75, meet every Wednesday evening while children and young adults aged 5-27 meet Sunday mornings. Typically, meetings begin with a prayer. A religious subject, such as a Gospel reading, sacrament, commandment or holy day, is simplified in a way to help the participants more clearly understand God’s message. Usually, this involves the making of an interactive craft. Open discussion and questions are encouraged, and no one is talked down to or dismissed. The environment fosters fellowship. 

While the children’s meeting is typically smaller, with fewer than 10 attendees, the adult class draws dozens. It’s both a religious class and a social event, with many participating for years. They seem like old friends, with each other and with the volunteers, who are at ease accommodating their specific needs. There is mutual respect. They come in with big smiles and leave with even bigger hugs.  

“It’s been a blessing for everyone,” Olson said, who prefers to stay behind the scenes. Her daughter, now 50, still attends Outreach in Love meetings. “I hope it never closes. It’ll be a sad day if that happens. Hopefully, it never will.” Olson said, “It’s just a beautiful thing.”

‘Winks from God’

While the director of Outreach is technically an employee at St. Edward, the other parishes involved with the program — Epiphany, St. Gabriel, St. Bridget, St. Augustine, St. John Neumann and Sacred Heart — pay an assessment that helps cover salary and cost of supplies. The Knights of Columbus support the program, and it is also funded through fundraisers. Volunteers are also vital to keeping the program running. 

Joan Congable

For 14 years, Joan Congable directed the program.  

“It’s such an accepting program,” said Congable. “We have people with all different disabilities, people who are deaf and blind, people who are cognitively impaired. Everyone accepts one another and they all help each other.” 

Congable still remembers her first meeting, which left her in tears, crying behind the wheel of her car the whole ride home. 

“They taught me how to pray,” Congable said. “They pray so easy and so innocent. They didn’t pray for themselves. None of it was ‘I want, I want, I want,’ it was all for somebody else. It humbled me. It just made me aware that with as much difficulty as they have, they are still very caring of others.”

She recalled having one boy in the group whose father told her that his son spoke to people at Outreach in Love, but doesn’t speak to anyone else.

“I call those moments ‘winks from God,’” Congable said.

Over her tenure as director, the number of participants grew from 49 to 121. After Francis DiLorenzo became bishop, Congable wrote to him, asking him to perform the program’s opening Mass. A week later, Bishop DiLorenzo agreed, and continued to be involved throughout his time as bishop. 

“Bishop DiLorenzo was so edifying towards Outreach in Love,” Olson said, “I asked him why he was so supportive at our last dinner (before he died) and he told me when he was ordained, he made a promise to God that he would help the marginalized.” 

New leadership

Congable stepped down earlier this year after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that left her partially paralyzed. She now goes to physical therapy twice every day in hopes that in a year or two, she will be able to function as before. Unable to walk or drive properly, Congable made the heartbreaking decision to leave her post. 

“Every time I think of it I get weepy. Outreach was a faith opener for me. I always had my faith but it really opened my eyes to the plan of God,” she said. “As much as we try, he has a plan and he doesn’t wear the same watch I do. Everything is in his time, not mine.”

Kristen Tarantino

In October, Kristen Tarantino became director. She has a degree in religious studies from VCU and a doctorate in educational policy, planning and leadership from the College of William and Mary, where she worked with special education faculty. 

The mother of Nathan, 15, who has autism; Owen, 8; and Christian, 9 months, Tarantino shared the same struggle as Olson did in finding religious education classes that would benefit her child.

She and her family had been living in the Hampton Roads area for more than a decade before moving back to Richmond. Ironically, she heard about the Outreach in Love program and was wondering if it would be a good fit for Nathan. She was going to ask Congable if she needed more volunteers for the program when she learned that they were looking for a new director. 

“I had this feeling that if I was ever going to be called to do something, this was it,” said Tarantino. “I think about all I’ve learned from the education field, particularly about educating and working with individuals with disabilities, and I really felt like this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

Part of the community 

With a son with autism herself, she knows how crucial this program is for both children and parents. Nathan has difficulty being away from his mother, and Outreach in Love gave them the opportunity to be involved in the faith community together. 

“It’s so important to me to be able to see my own son be a part of the Outreach community,” Tarantino said. “I’m glad that he can be a part of a community that values his unique contribution and embraces his differences.” 

Taking over the reins wasn’t an easy task, but it was made easier with Congable’s guidance. 

“I am honored to be able to follow Joan’s legacy. She has worked so hard to build an exceptional community with our Outreach in Love group,” said Tarantino. “She has a wealth of information about the program and those who participate in it. I hope I can follow her example and build onto an already successful program.”

One recent meeting involved making a personalized Jack-O-Lantern from a mason jar, tissue paper and a small battery-powered candle. Tarantino talked about how everyone is like a pumpkin, and how God cleans off all the dirt on us, scoops out all of the “yucky stuff” and puts a light inside of us. The light can only be seen if the pumpkin is carved. This is a special symbol marking us as Christians. 

After the supplies were distributed, the participants got to work, helped along the way by volunteers and aides. When the Jack-O-Lanterns were completed, Tarantino turned off the overhead lights, the room illuminated solely by the Jack-O-Lanterns. One woman quietly started singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….” Soon, others joined in. 

Place of acceptance

Much of Outreach in Love’s success is due to its diverse and dedicated group of volunteers, some of whom have been there since day one. There are also younger volunteers. Though only 22 years old, Nathalie Underwood has been volunteering at Outreach in Love for nearly a decade. 

“It has been the highlight of my week, every week for the past nine years,” Underwood said. 

She explained that when she first started high school, she felt like there was a void in her life – one that Outreach in Love has filled. When she saw the program advertised in the St. Edward bulletin, she immediately contacted Congable, whom she said became like a mother to her, to become a volunteer. Underwood’s father always stressed the importance of giving back to the community. He and Underwood volunteer at Outreach in Love together, and it has made their bond stronger. 

It also created a spark that has helped light her future. Underwood is working on a graduate degree in special education at VCU. She will graduate next year and become a special education teacher in Chesterfield County. 

“The reason Outreach in Love has lasted 40 years is in its name: Love. The families that began this program wanted their family members to feel the love of God and to learn about why God made them so special. This program does amazing things, and we have all become a family, determined to help one another,” Underwood said.

Sydney Wilborn, now 15 years old, asked to volunteer when she was 11. Her brother Justin, who is now 18 years old and has autism, has been attending meetings for more than eight years. 

Marie Wilborn, Justin and Sydney’s mother, learned about Outreach in Love after joining St. Edward Parish about 10 years ago. While Sydney became involved in Christian formation, Marie wanted Justin to have the same opportunity for faith and fellowship. She wanted her son to learn about God, but knew it would be difficult for him in a traditional setting. Outreach in Love changed that. 

“Justin has blossomed,” Wilborn said, noting he enjoys learning about his faith and “is able to retain a lot of information” that is presented through the activities. 

“Acceptance,” Wilborn said. “If I had to use one word, it’s acceptance. It’s a place where you learn about God and you are not judged. If you look different, you are not judged. You are there for the true mission, which is learning about God.”

Both Justin and Sydney have learned a lot from Outreach in Love. “Sydney is able to have patience and develop some good skills to survive in life. She also is able to help her brother and see that he’s not the only one who has a disability,” Wilborn said. 

“People with disabilities are unique,” Wilborn said. “They are God’s gift to us. It’s very important we never forget that. We need to allow them to have a relationship with God.”

Editor’s note: Those interested in more information about Outreach in Love or in volunteering can contact Tarantino at Kristen.Tarantino@ stedwardch.org.