Finding God in Special Needs

The man in the purple wheelchair is my brother Mark. The happy little girl with him is my daughter, who dearly loved her Uncle Mark. Mark passed away in 2007 at the age of 39, but I think about him every single day.

Mark had a unique personality, as well as severe mental and physical disabilities. Mark was blind, but he trained me to see; without him as my brother, I might never have paid much attention to people with special needs. As it is, I am always on the lookout for folks who respect people with special needs, and who learn at least as much as they teach.

I met just such a person a couple of weeks ago. Her name is Joellyn Cicciarelli, the director of curricula development at Loyola Press. I sat down with Joellyn one fine morning at her offices in Chicago to learn more about her and her unique work.

But first, let's take a look at these materials! Thanks to Joellyn and her pioneering colleagues, Loyola Press has a splendid variety of faith formation materials for young people with special needs. The USCCB's National Directory for Catechesis has this to say about catechesis for all:
Adaptive Kits for First Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Confirmation
All baptized persons with disabilities have a right to adequate catechesis and deserve the means to develop a relationship with God.
Taking this statement as its inspiration, Loyola Press offers adaptive catechetical materials as well as support (in the form of helpful books) for educators and families caring for children with special needs. The Adaptive Finding God program can stand on its own or work in conjunction with their standard Finding God program. All three of their adaptive sacramental preparation kits come in both Spanish and English, and their My Picture Missal app uses all the same terminology and icons as the kits. This consistency across media reinforces the beautiful, simple lessons that draw children closer to Jesus.

I've looked around for a long time, and I have never seen materials like this before. (If I have overlooked helpful materials you know and love, though, please say so in the comments below!)

Now, let me tell you about Joellyn. Before I drove down to Chicago, I did a little research and discovered that Joellyn is the one who introduced Art Print easels into my world. I've loved these for years!

A friend of mine in parish work uses these Art Prints in her standard faith formation program. The first time I laid eyes on the easels in her classroom, I was captivated. Despite being a hopeless mess of an artist myself, I love the visual arts. These Art Print easels delight the eye and enlighten the mind. (I suppose they're intended for children, but I dare you adults not to want one!)

After I finished gushing about the Art Print easels, I learned something else about Joellyn: she used to work with Mr. Rogers! You know, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood"? Yes, that Mr. Rogers. Joellyn edited a six-book "Grow and Learn" book series with him. She says Mr. Rogers taught her how to reach children effectively, and how to help grown-ups reach them too.

That desire to connect with all children led Joellyn to Loyola Press where she and her team researched the various ways parishes, schools, and families were accommodating the catechetical needs of children with disabilities. "We did our homework," she told me. "And we listened." They learned from parents, teachers, catechists, and other experts.
We knew there was a need [for adaptive materials], but we didn't know how great the need was. We found out!               -Joellyn Cicciarelli 
All that listening and research led to a full faith curriculum for young people with special needs. While most special education for faith formation used to involve starting with a standard textbook and modifying or supplementing it, Loyola Press felt called to set a standard of excellence in adaptive curriculum development. "We're not just filling gaps," Joellyn explained. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability provided seven reviewers for Loyola's Adaptive Finding God curriculum, ensuring that language, activities, and visuals coincide with best practices in the field.

Although the adaptive materials constitute a self-standing, full-fledged faith curriculum for people with special needs, most lessons are appropriate for any child at all. In fact, specific lesson adaptations often benefit the entire classroom. For example, in a typical classroom, children might learn about who God is through reading and discussion. An "adaptive" approach suggests taking a walk outside to engage the senses, literally to touch God's creation to learn about its Creator. Surely all children would enjoy this adaptation, regardless of learning level.

The adaptive formation materials from Loyola Press work well with integrated group classroom environments as well as one-on-one settings. The Finding God curriculum includes 177 lesson cards covering five themes: God, Jesus, Church, Sacraments, and Morality.

As the bishops say, "All baptized persons with disabilities . . . deserve the means to develop a relationship with God." Relationship with God involves both the head and the heart, of course, as St. Ignatius of Loyola knew so well. Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry, is responding to Jesus' call to draw hearts and minds closer to the Lord.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.               -Matthew 22:37-39

Joellyn and her curriculum development team are putting Jesus' command into action; they are loving their neighbor, especially those with disabilities. Grateful for the gift of formation they received from their own parents and teachers, they now offer excellent materials to children with special needs.

My heart has been changed forever by people with disabilities, and I am so grateful to know faithful professionals dedicated to serving children with special needs. When children learn they come from God, that they are passionately wanted by God, they grow in faith and confidence. All children have gifts God wants them to share.

I'll close with encouraging words Pope Francis offered in a February 2015 video conference with children with special needs:
What you do from the place where you are helps all of us. Helps us to understand that life is a beautiful treasure. It only makes sense if we give it…. What I want to say is don’t hide the treasure that all of you have.