By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 5, 2017
CARTERSVILLE—The Guardian Angels faith formation program at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cartersville helps special needs students and their families be more connected to parish life.
Amy Toft, director of faith formation at St. Francis of Assisi, provides staff support for Guardian Angels, a program first suggested by parishioner Betty Schaaf.
Schaaf, a volunteer at the parish, is the parent of a son with Down syndrome.
“She was looking for something for him. There really wasn’t anything,” said Toft about formation options.
A goal for many parents of special needs students is to prepare their children to receive the sacrament of first Communion.
“What would it look like?” was the initial question about curriculum for special needs children, said Toft.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Disabilities Ministry, led by Maggie Rousseau, can help anyone “get the ball rolling” on developing programs at the parish level, noted Toft.
The mission of the disabilities ministry is to support full participation of persons with disabilities in the life of the church. Special needs curricula are available for parish use through approved Catholic publishers. Training is offered through the ministry for religious education directors and catechists, upon request.
“Our parish has grown significantly over the past several years, leading to a diverse population of parishioners,” said Toft. “As the community expands, one growing opportunity has been the education and ministering of children with special needs. Our Guardian Angels program supports both children and their families in their spiritual, intellectual and emotional needs.”
St. Francis of Assisi uses an adaptive program published by Loyola Press. High school students and adult volunteers help with the Guardian Angels program.
The high school youth are trained and “get paired with an angel student,” said Toft.
Typically, the parish has about 10 special needs students in the program, ranging in age from 6 to 18.
Metztli Munoz, one of the “guardian teens” assisting with the program, is now considering special education as a possible career path because of her involvement.
“They’ve gotten so much out of it,” said Schaaf about the guardian teens. “They go to Mass with their student.”
Toft said the Guardian Angels program runs separately from regular faith formation classes because the children have greater needs and shorter attention spans. The Guardian Angels group meets on Sunday mornings. The parents of the angel students meet with a volunteer leader in an adjacent classroom. At dismissal, volunteers will suggest to the parents things to work on at home, like praying the Sign of the Cross.
In addition to class, social activities with Guardian Angels include harvest hayrides, Christmas parties and other events.
“It’s very relational. We’re very blessed,” said Schaaf.
She takes turns coordinating the program, now running for more than three years, with volunteer Kristy Mitchell.
In addition to the support of the religious education staff, the backing of the pastor, Father Juan Anzora, is vital.
“Father Juan said, ‘go for it.’ He’s awesome,” said Schaaf.
When Father Anzora became pastor three years ago, Schaaf approached him with the idea of providing faith formation to those with disabilities.
“I think I bombarded him,” she admitted.
Schaaf’s son, Noah, who is 18, decided at Mass one day that he was going to be an altar server and headed up to help on his own.
“By the time, I caught up with him, Father Juan had him. I was absolutely a wreck,” recalled Schaaf.
She said the priest told her, “No, Betty, this is going to be fine. God is in charge.”
That was Noah’s first time to serve as an altar server—but not his last. He continues to serve in that ministry and has worked on becoming a lector.
“He was perfect,” said Schaaf.
Toft, who joined the St. Francis staff in July 2016, said they would never want someone to leave the parish because faith formation wasn’t offered for a special needs child. A parishioner from a neighboring church came to them after learning about Guardian Angels.
“They feel much closer. They feel more connected to the parish,” said Toft about Guardian Angel families.
While the program helps prepare the young people for first Communion, and understand their relationship with God, ultimately leaders may explore preparation for confirmation.
Both Toft and Schaaf agree that people don’t have to be experts on disabilities to offer faith formation to those with challenges.
It’s more about “finding someone who’s really motivated,” said Toft. “There’s enough resources now. We’ve been really blessed to have this perfect storm.”
At various points in developing and growing the Guardian Angel program, a need for information or a resource would arise.
“Really, God just took care of it,” said Schaaf.
The angel students receive their first Communion at a different time than the students in the parish’s Wednesday classes. Father Anzora felt the decision should be left to the families.
The Guardian Angel leaders said the congregation seems to learn much from witnessing the children celebrating first Communion.
“They’re really blown away that special needs kids want to know God,” said Schaaf.