By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 3, 2022
STONE MOUNTAIN–Bringing faith into the world of the special needs disabilities community, Nicholas Ihenacho is a founder of Rosary Makers of America that offers a special focus on art, prayer and companionship.
From working with his son, Ikenna, who has Down syndrome, Ihenacho formed this nonprofit for others to express themselves by creating prayer beads. With the diverse range of guests and their families, the organization hopes to share their handiwork with area parishes and believers.
Seated at a small table, Gloria Sowers, along with her mother, Sharon, works with beads. In the future, someone will use Gloria’s creation to count the traditional Marian prayers that make up the rosary. Gloria, 33, who has been diagnosed with autism, has a love for beading at home. That makes the Rosary Makers of America office a favorite place.
“She’s doing what she loves to do. She’s not alone. And she’s happy,” said Sharon, who is in her 60s. She and her husband, Scott, created an independent film called “Special Needs.”
From the daily prayer to the calm atmosphere, their daughter has thrived here.
“Everyone we know has a rosary. But one made by Gloria is special,” said Sharon “This is a gift to us. This is peaceful.”
Jessie Moreau, 63, a retired special education teacher, comes to help the guests. She called it a faith-based vocational training program.
With Rosary Makers, the women and men gain valuable experience, practicing social interactions and learning independence. The program is one of the few for people with disabilities who have graduated from public schools, according to the founder.
Moreau said she’s seen young people come out of their isolation and greet people with hellos and goodbyes. They practice valuable self-help skills, like using the microwave in the small kitchen, she said. Moreau is on the organization’s board of directors.
In this suburban office, the day begins with prayer and pauses at noon to recite the Angelus devotion. Several clients sit at their desks with bowls of needed materials and other tools used to count out beads for a rosary. The rosaries are then distributed to local parishes where people can make a donation to help the nonprofit.
Supporting the dignity of all
Maggie Rousseau, director of the Disabilities Ministry of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, recently gathered at Rosary Makers with Atlanta Deaf Catholics. While there, group members created rosaries to take to the Pastoral Week of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, held in Savannah in January.
Rousseau emphasized that purposeful employment for individuals with disabilities and deafness is an outward sign of supporting the dignity of all persons. She said that programs like Rosary Makers are vital to the emotional, social and occupational needs of adults living with developmental disabilities.
Faith-based employment options for people with disabilities are few.
“Often, they are not chosen to fill a position because of the assumption that they lack skills to be independent, or companies do not understand how someone with a disability can be employable,” said Rousseau. “That is where vocational rehabilitation can help, or programs like St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions (SMILE), licensed by the State of Georgia to provide supportive employment.”
Supportive employment programs work with businesses and individuals to identify ways to customize or adapt a job and then provide ongoing assistance.
The faith-based environment—from exposure to prayer and Scripture to witnessing the journey of others—is a wonderful work experience for all persons including those with disabilities, said Rousseau.
“Having a developmental disability does not exclude a person from having a relationship with God. I would argue just the opposite, their relationship is pure,” said Rousseau. “And I know that programs like Rosary Makers of America absolutely make God smile!”
Rosary Makers’ history
Ihenacho, 63, is a physician specializing in kidney disease. His faith is rooted in his family growing up in Nigeria, where they would pray the rosary daily. Attending college, he faced a crisis as his dream of medicine risked slipping away. With a renewed purpose, he returned to the practice of the faith, attending Mass along with a deep prayer life. The practice continued when he arrived in the United States for medical training and it has been a foundation for his family life, as he and his wife raised five children.
The family is active at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain. They led a ministry centered on the rosary. As an enrichment exercise, their young boy relished making the prayer beads. It became something they did at home.
Ihenacho’s vision to gather others in the community took hold when he saw how educational opportunities for young people with disabilities traditionally end between ages 18 and 21. He saw how his son, who will soon be 25, enjoyed the work and took pride in it.
At the storefront, Ihenacho said he wants to emphasize the dignity of labor.
“Work is our vocation. You give of yourself and it’s not just to make money, no. It is serving your neighbor and giving of yourself,” he said.
Here, with a rainbow of loose beads to choose from, the clients are putting their skills to use.
“Every morning they have a job to go to and stay busy for the Lord,” he said.