Published May 23, 2013
ATLANTA—Maggie Rousseau dove right into the hubbub that is Toni’s Camp.
It’s a “marvelous evangelical opportunity to spread love,” she said about her introduction to the annual weekend retreat camp in the Atlanta Archdiocese that attracts about 100 people with disabilities. “It’s such a faith-building environment.”
Rousseau was just a few days on the job as the head of the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry during that rain-soaked May weekend.
A longtime special needs teacher in Gwinnett County schools, Rousseau now leads the ministry after a national review of its services.
“It’s like I got my dream job. It includes my two favorite things: my faith and my special friends,” she said.
Goals gleaned from the review include improving communications between the ministry and parishes and the Archdiocese of Atlanta. A key recommendation is for the ministry to better market itself as a resource.
Rousseau, who is 52, and her husband, Scott, were introduced to the community of those with disabilities when their first son, Chris, was born with a rare genetic disorder. He lived for more than nine years, when most children with his severe disability die before their second birthday.
There’s a Rousseau family photo of Chris bundled up on the ski trail of a New Hampshire mountain. He schussed down the slope using adaptive equipment and loved it.
“I don’t like the word disability. I like to look at a person’s ability and grow from there,” said Rousseau, who has two surviving children. The family worships at St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville.
The ministry falls under the Communications Department of the archdiocese.
Communications Director Pat Chivers said Rousseau brings personal and professional experience to the position.
“Maggie brings a depth of understanding as a mother of a child with special needs, experience as a teacher of children with severe disabilities, and her commitment to the Catholic faith as she serves in the position of director of the disability ministry. She brings new energy to the ministry and is enthusiastic about working with our clergy, parish staff and volunteers who serve,” said Chivers in an email.
The Rousseaus celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this month. Marriages with children with severe disabilities often end in divorce. But she credits her faith with keeping the marriage alive.
“We totally credit it to God. Without our faith, there isn’t any way we would still be together,” she said.
After her son’s death, Rousseau earned a master’s degree in education from Georgia State University, specializing in the education of young children with multiple and severe disabilities. She worked for a dozen years in Gwinnett County public schools serving students with special needs.
After the former ministry leader stepped down, the archdiocese had the National Catholic Partnership on Disability review the ministry. The review was completed in early May.
“We’re not bad. There’s room for growth,” said Rousseau of the report.
Two areas highlighted in the report include ensuring that the 100 parishes in the archdiocese, and the Chancery itself, are as accommodating as possible to people with special needs. That means paying attention to electronic communication, the archdiocesan website, videos and printed materials so that people with a disability are welcomed in the church.
Also, the report highlights how parishes can provide sacramental and pastoral care to people with special needs.
“We want people to participate in the liturgy. We want folks to receive the sacraments. We want everyone to be part of the parish,” she said.
People will have different abilities that can be accommodated, she said.
“Just because they can’t say Amen, doesn’t mean they aren’t listening,” she said.
Rousseau said another task is to increase marketing of the ministry as a resource. The ministry will work with the Office of Formation and Discipleship to reach out to the Catholic community.
“Love is our first language. That is what I see being the heart and soul of this ministry. It is love for others.”