By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published August 6, 2015
SANDY SPRINGS—For more than 30 years, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability has been working collaboratively to ensure all people with disabilities are able to fully experience parish life. At a reception at St. Jude the Apostle Church July 22, the success of that collaboration in the Archdiocese of Atlanta was celebrated at a fundraiser for the NCPD and its foundation.
Bishop David P. Talley, a longtime supporter of the Disabilities Ministry in Atlanta, was the host of the evening, which brought together local and national Catholic disabilities leaders. A bus brought several residents from St. Mary’s Independent Living Extension, a Lilburn home and program for adults with developmental disabilities, to the event.
Bishop Talley spoke about the way those with disabilities have touched his life. The bishop has been a volunteer at Toni’s Camp, the archdiocesan weekend camp for those with disabilities held each May, for more than 25 years. He spoke of one camper who began coming as a young man. The camper’s father brought him, but as the years went by the father became feebler, making it difficult for him to care for his son.
“That’s one of the issues of our community. The work in this room is to find ways to care for our adult children when they can’t care completely for themselves,” he said.
Bishop Talley then shared his story of how he became involved in the Disabilities Ministry in the archdiocese. As a young priest who was assigned to St. Jude Church, Bishop Talley met the late Toni Miralles, who founded the disabilities ministry at the parish that eventually grew into the archdiocesan office. She invited Bishop Talley to get involved.
“This whole organization didn’t come from the top down. Not from the archbishop, but from a mother who was given the grace of God to speak up for her child,” he said. “And that’s what everybody in this room needs to hear. But how does that relate to the National Partnership? God gave Atlanta Toni Miralles, but not every diocese in the country has a Toni Miralles. … This organization takes our community and spreads the good news to everyone who will hear. … This organization educates, catechizes, forms, converts men and women and especially our priests, and, please God, our bishops. This is vital for us. This is a national network. We have to help them by helping this organization.”
The bishop encouraged those in attendance to be tireless in their efforts.
“Be energized. Be forceful. Yes, be faithful, but be forceful in your faith. Institutions can change their minds and their hearts by accepting all of God’s children,” he said.
Fostering Catholic communities of love, support
Randy Hain, a parishioner of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, whose son, Alex, has autism, has chosen to donate all of the royalties from his new book, “Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for fathers of children with special needs” to the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. He wrote the book and solicited reflections from nine other Catholic fathers who have children with special needs.
“I’m humbled to have an opportunity to serve such a great organization,” he said. “The spirit of collaboration and the desire to help NCPD grow its mission is the reason we’re here tonight. The love and support of the community I described at St. Peter Chanel is what NCPD wants to see in every parish and diocese across our nation. My wife and I have seen our son, Alex, flourish at St. Peter Chanel because the community embraced him, loved him and refused to let his challenges keep him from doing what others do.”
Maggie Rousseau, director of the Disabilities Ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and a member of the NCPD Council for Intellectual and Developmental Delays, served as the evening’s emcee. She introduced Jan Benton, the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership, who is speaking about the partnership’s foundation while visiting dioceses with disabilities ministries around the country. The partnership’s mission is to foster inclusion in the life of the Church and society of the over 14 million Catholics in this country who live with disabilities.
“Jan Benton really is the heart and soul of NCPD,” she said. “When I first came on board with the Archdiocese of Atlanta, she was one of my first phone calls because I knew she would know how to help me figure out what to do. There really is no manual that says, this is how you run a ministry or how you open hearts. So I have used the NCPD and Jan often.”
Benton encouraged those in attendance to use the resources provided by the national office. These include catechetical materials, ministry models, tools to design accessible church buildings, webinars and video training. Many disabilities are addressed, including mental illness.
“We do nationally what Maggie does so well in the archdiocese, which is really focusing on any disability, any age, every aspect of the life of faith. So that’s pretty broad. There’s a lot to do,” Benton said. “It’s a wonderful ministry. It’s great to go to work every day because you know you’re making a difference and you’re touching people’s lives.”
Affirming life is an important aspect of what the office does, Benton said.
“We all know that people with disabilities are disrespected and their very lives are threatened, so we do a lot around prenatal diagnosis and assisted suicide. We provide resources and training and our goal is creating access in parishes in every aspect, including faith formation,” she said.
Though there is often a focus on children, Benton said it’s important to remember adults with disabilities.
“It’s about meaningful participation. We want to make sure people are really active in their faith and contributing their gifts. That’s what’s so beautiful,” she said.
Local Catholic Tricia Patterson, who serves on the Catholic Disability Foundation board of directors for NCPD, also spoke at the event. Patterson injured her spinal cord in an accident 16 years ago and uses a wheelchair. She shared a humorous story of not being able to get into a confessional because of her wheelchair.
“There are just a few things that people might take for granted that we don’t. Even parking can be an issue,” she said. “What Jan and you all are doing for people with disabilities is the biggest blessing you could ever do. I can’t even tell you how much it means to me.”