Finding faith

. October 30, 2012.

Betsy Hall held a small pink heart, made out of construction paper, in her hand. “Who loves Hannah?” she asked Hannah Herold. “My mom,” answered Hannah. “She brushes my hair.”

Hall wrote the name of Hannah’s mother on the pink heart, and Hannah glued the heart to a piece of poster board. One by one, hearts with names written on them filled the poster. At the bottom of the poster, Hall had written “God loves Hannah.”

It was a simple, yet profound, message that Hannah Herold grew up hearing. She heard it at home, and through religious education classes at Findlay’s St. Michael the Archangel parish, where she attends services. Until recently, however, those classes were not equipped to take into account the special needs of Herold, who has a neurological disorder called
Rett Syndrome.

The syndrome means that Herold, 14, functions on the level of a four or five year old. So while she attended traditional religious education classes and will receive the sacrament of Confirmation this spring, it was unclear how much of the lessons she really understood. That may change for Hannah and half a dozen other young members of St. Michael’s as they participate in a new religious education program for those with disabilities.

The parish has, in the past, tailored some religious education to those with disabilities. Others went through traditional classes as best they could. But this will be the first time in years the parish has offered a formal religious education suitable for individuals with special needs. “All God’s children are called to know and love God,” says Geri Leibfarth, director of religious education. “We offer religious education for everyone; they have as much right
as anyone.”

It is the only such program currently offered in the Diocese of Toledo. Marcia Rivas, diocesan director of equal access ministries, says about 20 percent of Catholics in the diocese have some form of disability, whether mental, cognitive or physical. Those parishioners need some form of religious education that will allow them to understand their faith. “And who is to say they don’t understand better than any of us? How do you measure someone’s spirituality?” asks Rivas. “Faith and spirituality is above our human understanding. We can’t judge what another’s relationship could be
with God.”

Tani Lowery’s son, Gavin, will also participate in the new program. Gavin, 13, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and attends the Center for Autism and Dyslexia. The family tried placing Gavin into traditional religious education classes and then homeschooling, but remained frustrated.

“I felt like nobody was really getting it,” says Lowery, of Arlington. “They mean well, but we were trying to fit into a round hole and it wasn’t working. No one realized we needed something totally different.”

Lowery talked with Leibfarth about developing something suitable not only for Gavin, but for other parishioners who wanted their children to learn about their faith in a different way. Leibfarth says the response from the church has been overwhelming. What started as a notice on the bulletin grew to include 21 volunteers, many of whom have special education backgrounds. The group spent several months talking with parents and developing the program, which is based on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy religious education curriculum for those with special needs. The group currently consists of students ranging in age from 4 to 14. Most will meet individually with tutors and then with the rest of the religious education program participants for prayer and discussion.

For Hannah Herold, an eighth grader at Glenwood Middle School, it will be another way to participate in the faith she loves so much. “We all want our kids to develop and learn about our religion, and we need to do it at their level,” says her mother, Karen Herold. “I feel very strongly that Hannah will
gain more knowledge of the Catholic faith when we break it down into terms she can understand.”

Hall, a special needs aide at Lincoln Elementary School and family friend, helped develop Hannah’s most recent lesson of “God Our Loving Father.”  Hannah doesn’t write or color well, so Hall cut out hearts that Hannah can paste onto poster board. Once all the hearts were pasted, it was time to ask Hannah what she learned.

“That God is nice,” she said. “Yes, and he loves you,” said Hall.