Austin parish reaches out to those with special needs

By Michele Chan Santos

Correspondent

The Open Hearts Special Needs ministry at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Southwest Austin brings together children and adults with developmental disabilities, their families and members of the parish.

It is the first group in Texas to be recognized as a Faith and Light community. Based in France, Faith and Light is an international organization that connects people with intellectual disabilities, their families and members of the community, with a particular emphasis on young people.

More significantly, for the families who participate in it, Open Hearts means feeling welcome and part of a larger whole; it means being a crucial part of parish life at St. Catherine of Siena, instead of hovering on the fringes.

Lucy and Michael McCown are part of the Open Hearts group. Their daughter Kelly, 18, has Down syndrome. The McCowns are one of the founding families of Open Hearts.

When the McCowns first moved to the Austin area several years ago, they came from a parish in Colorado that had been very welcoming to families with special needs children. But when they first moved here, Lucy McCown didn’t see the same number of families she was expecting.

"I knew there were other Catholic families who had kids with disabilities," Lucy McCown said. "I wondered why I didn’t see more individuals with special needs. About 10 percent of the population has special needs."

She approached Father Pat Coakley, the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena. Father Coakley launched the initiative that became the Open Hearts group.

"I listened to parents of children with special needs telling me how hard it was to integrate and take part. I noticed that they often were absent from the parish activity," Father Coakley said. "We realized very quickly that this cannot be a parish boundary kind of group."

He said the parish welcomes anyone from other parishes who is looking for support as well.

Today, the Open Hearts Special Needs Ministry meets once a month on Sunday afternoons. They gather and share a meal with families in the Generations of Faith program. (Generations of Faith is an intergenerational program at St. Catherine where families meet monthly for religious education, fellowship, a meal and volunteer activities.)

After lunch, when the Generations of Faith participants break out into different classrooms, the Open Hearts participants also go to a classroom, where they sing, pray, act in skits, play games and do arts and crafts. The international organization Faith and Light provides material and curriculum for the meetings. The Open Hearts group has been meeting once a month for two years. Each meeting is about two and a half hours long. About 10 families currently participate.

"We might do a skit or read a Bible story," said Diane Zbasnik, director of community ministries at St. Catherine of Siena. "The whole family attends, brothers and sisters and mom and dad. Being a part of Open Hearts means your child can be who they are. They don’t have to conform to the classroom. "

One of the most rewarding parts of coordinating the group is seeing relationships develop between the families, Zbasnik said. "For people with developmental disabilities, the primary goal is being integrated into the community," she said.

Explained Lucy McCown, "We gather as families. I like the family component of it. Parental support is really necessary. At one meeting a mom was talking about a medical issue her daughter was having and another mom was a physician and could address it.

"This is a group for families who have a child with special needs," McCown continued. "It has a fun element. It has a faith element. Kelly very much looks forward to it. She always wants to know who is going to be there."

Through the Open Hearts program, children with developmental disabilities receive sacramental preparation. Zbasnik said she works one-on-one with the families to develop an appropriate program for each child.

Open Hearts members participate in other aspects of parish life too. Kelly McCown, who recently graduated from Bowie High School, is an altar server for the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

The group is open to any family, not just those within the St. Catherine of Siena Parish. "We are open to any family who wants to join," Zbasnik said.

Although Zbasnik is leaving soon (she and her husband are moving to Cleveland, Ohio due to a job change), the new community ministries coordinator, Misty Carreiro, is a strong supporter of the Open Hearts ministry. A core group of families and volunteers will ensure that the program remains strong, McCown said.

For more information about joining or volunteering with the Open Hearts program, contact Misty Carreiro at (512) 892-2433, ext. 34, or e-mail misty.carreiro@stcatherine-austin.org.

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