On the first Saturday of each month from September through June, a faith formation program for people with disabilities and their families meets at Baker Victory Services' Baker Hall School in Buffalo from noon until 2:30 p.m. This ministry, called God's Family, allows individuals to connect with other families who have experienced similar life circumstances while also learning more about their Catholic faith.
Associated with the diocesan Department of Lifelong Faith Formation, leadership includes Mario Vinti, associate director of the Lifelong Faith Formation Department, as well as Mitzi Fuller, Elaine Driscoll, Cathy Drew, Diane Schunke, Sue Haas and Bridget Hudson. The remaining dates in the 2016-17 schedule are April 1 and May 6. The last one will be on a Saturday in June that has yet to be determined.
"It's an intergenerational faith formation that offers faith formation to people of all ages with special needs or disabilities. Parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo often use God's Family as either a supplement or an alternative to their parish faith formation program," said Vinti, noting the program has existed in the diocese for more than 10 years, predating his tenure in the diocesan office that heads it. "In the case they use it as an alternate, it's usually in case they lack the resources that are needed to help accommodate faith formation needs of families of persons with special needs. Each session has five main components."
The program begins with a gathering time, where people come in and the leadership team greets them and makes them feel welcome if they are new. They also have a chance to catch up with each other and participate in crafts for children to work on that is geared toward the specific lesson and stories that are covered at that meeting. This is followed by a potluck lunch, where families bring meals to pass.
"After that, we have a faith sharing session. It depends on what lesson or what topic we want to teach. Either we split the kids off in one place and have the adults go off in another for their own special lesson, or sometimes we keep them all together," Vinti explained. After this, there is liturgy of the word, including acting out, singing or listening to Scripture. The program concludes with a sending forth.
Driscoll, who has been associated with God's Family for the past three to four years, referred to God's Family as "remarkable" in terms of the benefits that it offers to individuals, young and old.
"Participants are 'family' and, as such, enable one another to grow and share their unique experience of God in their lives. Besides offering faith formation for the children and adults with disabilities, the program also offers the parents and other family members an opportunity to share and grow in their faith. The monthly gatherings also offer a natural support system for the families. I have gained so much from my experiences with these wonderful families," Driscoll commented of the God's Family program.
"There is so much I could say. I really feel this program is so ideal for persons with special needs. We try our best to say and do all things on their level," said Max Fuller, another ministry participant. "Also, it is very, very important we fill a great need for the whole family. It is so important for them to get together to share what they are living, to know they are not alone and to know the love of the Lord."
According to Vinti, this program ties in well with other activities in the diocese, including picnics for people with disabilities, since many of the same people who go to those come to God's Family sessions. It is open to people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Vinti is also part of the diocesan disability commission that Dennis Mahaney, the diocesan director for Evangelization and Parish Life, runs.
Haas, who provides music for God's Family by playing the guitar with Rich Foster and Drew, who plays the flute, said the ministry is "dedicated to bringing the word of God to special need families by a program of crafts, Bible instruction, spiritual liturgies and a lot of love." There are also lunches that Dick Drew, Cathy's husband, provides. "It is a warm and caring afternoon, once a month, with many activities geared toward special needs children and adults. I love being a part of it," added Haas.
Vinti noted that he frequently receives phone calls from parish leaders, including directors of religious education, who are either looking for alternative means of faith formation for individuals in their parishes with disabilities, or something to supplement the faith formation they are already getting.
"Sometimes in those conversations with DREs, I'm able to direct them and maybe provide them with resources to help them accommodate and better serve those individuals in their parish," Vinti added. "I've noticed that with the structure of it, it's given a lot of persons and families the opportunity to share and grow in their faith journey. I've noticed this - and some of the other leaders in the group have noticed this - I find that it really helps families to not feel isolated and alone when caring for an individual in their family that has a disability. They are with other people who carry the same cross. When they all come together, they're able to share their experience, their struggles and network with each other and support each other."