By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 22, 2018 | En Español
KENNESAW—Two by two they processed into the room, each of their steps down the red carpet punctuated by the cheers of the crowd. They wore their Sunday best—many adding a few extra sparkles. The smiles on everyone’s faces—participants and volunteers alike—was a reminder that Fun Night! is a ministry aptly named.
Founded in 2001, Fun Night! is a social ministry launched by Karen Hastings, a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw. Designed for teens and adults with developmental disabilities, Fun Night! has expanded to several parishes, including St. Joseph Church, Marietta, which hosted the Jan. 20 “Dancing Under the Stars” Fun Night! regional event at Ben Robertson Community Center in Kennesaw.
The night, in which more than 200 participants attended, featured dinner and dancing, kicked off by red carpet introductions for the participants, who linked arms with their volunteer buddies.
Offered monthly, Fun Night! features game nights, arts and crafts, birthday and holiday parties and other celebrations. According to its mission, the Fun Night! volunteers, while having fun with participants, “strive to create an environment of acceptance and support as well as foster an appreciation for the gifts and talents of each individual.”
Kathleen Fleiszar, Ph.D., one of the leaders of the St. Catherine Fun Night! group, worked for years in medical genetics and studied developmental disabilities. But working with this ministry, she said, has given her the chance to spend time with those with disabilities through a new lens.
“What you read in a medical textbook doesn’t tell you what it really means to have a child with a disability. It doesn’t show you the ups and downs, ins and outs of being a caregiver. It doesn’t tell you about the personal part,” she said. “I have so many friends I’ve met through this ministry. I’ve really enjoyed talking to caregivers and meeting other members of the family to see that interaction. It’s given me a whole new perspective. You think you’re giving, but really, what they teach you is just incredible.”
Ruben Rodriguez, 17, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, was experiencing his first Fun Night! event as a volunteer.
“I thought it would be fun to get involved and see what it was like,” he said. “It’s impossible to be down here. No one is sad. There’s no negativity. It’s just pure joy.”
Laura Fields, who leads the St. Catherine Fun Night! ministry with Fleiszar, said many of the volunteers were first-timers.
“We have 40 teenagers here tonight and none had ever volunteered before,” she said. “They come and they tell their friends and more people come.”
Hastings, who launched Fun Night!, is no longer actively involved with the program, but stopped by the dance to visit.
“It’s humbling to see how it’s grown. I did this for 12 years. We started with two volunteers and three participants,” she said. “It means a lot to see that what I started is continuing on in their hearts as well as mine.”
The Fun Night! events at St. Catherine of Siena regularly bring in about 40 participants. At St. Joseph’s, 30 to 35 regularly attend the events. Charlie Mullaney, who leads the Fun Night! group at St. Joseph, said that their ministry has been steadily growing since it began in July 2016. Mullaney regularly turns to his brother Knights of Columbus to help him with events. At the dance, the Knights provided catering and other assistance. For Mullaney, the support of his volunteers means everything.
“Just seeing the faces on these kids at these events. It’s the greatest feeling,” Mullaney said. “I can’t do anything by myself, though. We have a great core group of volunteers. It’s as important for them as it is for the participants. I think they’re amazed at how much they get back. If you don’t leave one of these events with a smile on your face, something is wrong.”
On the Wednesday prior to the dance, a group of Fun Night! families met with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to present him with a gift to thank him for supporting those with disabilities.
Pat Kahnle, whose son, Matt, 40, is a longtime participant in Fun Night!, composed a letter to Archbishop Gregory to share the positive impact the events have had in their family’s life. After Matt graduated from high school, she said, there were few activities for people his age with special needs. Thanks to Fun Night! and its dedicated volunteers, holidays, holy days, birthdays and special events are truly celebrated, she wrote.
“Dinner is served, activities, games, dancing and crafts are arranged,” she said. “A truly joy-filled evening is shared with all the participants. As an additional benefit … parents and caregivers can enjoy an evening out, a respite in our 24-7 caregiving.”
Kahnle also praised the volunteers for their “gracious goodness.”
“Fun Night! volunteers are a remarkable group. Their generosity and kindness, caring concern for all God’s children, their gifts of patience, acceptance and presence speak volumes for our children who cannot advocate for themselves,” she wrote in the letter.
Maggie Rousseau, director of the disabilities ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said she’d love to see Fun Night! expand to more parishes throughout all regions in the archdiocese.
“My hope would be that each deanery would host a Fun Night! and that the Knights of Columbus would help with that effort. Often, when an individual with special needs leaves the school system after age 21, there is little if any opportunity for social activities,” she said. “Fun Night! … organized regionally helps those individuals maintain long friendships and gives others a chance to experience Jesus in a fun way. It should not always be the parent or caregiver of an individual with disabilities who gets a program started—they already have too much on their plate. It is very easy to get started, and I am happy to help any parish that is interested.”