A special need to learn about God

A special need to learn about God
Kim and Jim Forte show Gavin how to receive Communion during religious education class for children with special needs at Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood. Photo by Carl Peters

Kim and Jim Forte show Gavin how to receive Communion during religious education class for children with special needs at Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood.
Photo by Carl Peters

BLACKWOOD — “Who are we going to talk about today?”

Kim Forte, the teacher, puts the question to one of the 15 children in the classroom.

“God,” the child answers, as Forte points to the word “God” on a felt board beside her. Other words on the board include “Jesus,” “Mass” and “Communion.”

They have come to talk about God, and the lesson proceeds in an orderly manner. “Who is God’s Son?” was the next question for the class in a lesson to teach young children knowledge of the Catholic faith. But Forte’s initial question — who are “we” going to talk about? — is a reminder that the lesson itself, the coming together to talk about God, may be as important as the content. For here, in this classroom at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, volunteers, parents and children come together so these children will be part of the larger community.

Like other Catholics, and like children without developmental challenges, they are learning the faith, and they attend Mass to pray, worship, sing and, ultimately, receive the sacraments of Eucharist and confirmation.

This is Saint Bart’s Program, a religious education class for children with special needs at Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood.

Several other parishes have similar programs. The one at Our Lady of Hope was started with one child several years ago and spread by word of mouth. There are now two classes, one for elementary age children and another for middle school age children.

Father Mark Cavagnaro, pastor, noted that the program is named for Saint Bartholomew, the patron of persons with neurological disorders.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Father Cavagnaro said, noting its strong parental involvement and support. “The children get a sense in their lives, and that God wants to be part of their lives.”

The class is open to any child who exhibits a variety of developmental disorders.

Many have Autism Spectrum Disorder, which involves varying degrees of communication and social impairments, as well as difficulty in motor coordination and attention skills.

The students range widely in ability, but the class functions much like any other classroom, the main difference being that the lessons are kept brief to accommodate the children’s shorter attention spans.

As the class continues, one student hums, another is a little hyper. These repetitive movements and verbalizations do not directly relate to the subject being discussed, but are characteristic of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. With the help of her volunteers, Linda Maine, Lori Sabot, Sonia Flores and her daughter, Erica, the students are individually redirected to focus their attention on the class.

Forte — Ms. Kim, as she is known in the classroom— finishes reviewing and gets the children singing and doing crafts and activities.

Forte, who has been teaching the classes for six years, refers to the students as “these beautiful children” and says that teaching them “is the joy of my life.”

She has a bachelor’s degree in special education and has been married to her husband Jim for more than 20 years. He’s a retired business owner, who has taught seventh grade Faith Formation Classes for 30 years at both Saint Jude Parish and Our Lady of Hope Parish in Blackwood. He also serves as a Eucharistic Minister and Lector at Our Lady of Hope.

Jim steps in to explain that he is a Eucharistic Minister, showing them his Pyx — the small case used to bring Communion to people outside Mass — and presents the unconsecrated host to each student individually as Forte talks about Communion.

“Who celebrates Mass?” Forte asks as she holds up a picture of a priest. As she continues to ask questions, she shows flash cards with pictures of the host, wine and a chalice. At one point, the volunteers line the children up to practice receiving Communion, showing them how to hold their hands and say “Amen.”

The parish celebrates an “Inclusion Mass” on the third Sunday of every month at 9 a.m. At the next one, April 17, four of the children will make their first Communion.

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