"Suffer little children to come unto me" (detail) by Juan Urruchi

“Suffer little children to come unto me” (detail) by Juan Urruchi

“Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.”  (CCC 2276)

One of the few issues my wife and I were concerned about when we decided to join the Catholic Church in 2005 was how to include our oldest son, Alex, who has high-functioning autism. He was seven years old that year. Ever since his diagnosis at age two, we had found excellent therapists and doctors to help him function better at school, overcome his speech deficit, and cope with life in general. We were concerned about how he would do in our church’s Parish School of Religion (PSR, the religious education program for public school students) and how he would ever learn something as deep and complex as Catholicism.

The first few years of PSR were a wonderful experience for Alex. He encountered kind and loving teachers from our parish who were patient with him as he grappled with the teachings of the Church. Things progressed at a steady pace until 2010, when our family encountered an angel named Jeanne Lyons.

Jeanne’s job at our parish was to help Alex and other children with special needs participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Church, help them learn about our faith, and help them share their often unique gifts with others. Over the years I have seen my son blossom in his understanding and love for the Church, and it’s in large part because of the heroic efforts of Jeanne. Jeanne is very important to Alex’s growth as a Catholic, and we were overjoyed when she graciously agreed to serve as his confirmation sponsor.

Jeanne Lyons is not simply a volunteer with a big heart. This life-long Catholic from Morgantown, West Virginia, grew up in a devout Catholic home with loving parents and three other siblings. She felt an early calling (at age five!) to be a teacher, and she taught elementary school after her college graduation. But it wasn’t until her own sons were born that she felt called to teach special education. Both of Jeanne’s boys had challenges: Her oldest son, Shawn, was diagnosed at age four with Asperger syndrome (AS), and her younger son, Riley, struggled with sensory integration and speech issues as a child.

Jeanne shared with me the often difficult years of learning everything she could about autism, AS, and sensory integration issues, while her devoted husband, Rory, worked long hours as an attorney to support their family and provide for the expensive therapies their sons needed. Jeanne saw firsthand the difficulties her sons had in acclimating to school classrooms and dealing with peers.

Jeanne and her husband also witnessed their oldest son’s growing disillusionment with Catholicism, after he experienced bullying during his last two years at a Catholic elementary school. The school administration had changed, and neither Shawn nor the bully was offered the guidance that he needed. The situation led to the Lyonses’ heartbreaking decision to enroll Shawn in a public high school. This school welcomed Shawn with open arms, valued his gifts, and was willing to continue to provide the accommodations with which the Catholic elementary school had supported Shawn’s academic success so beautifully.

Shawn’s experience became an important catalyst for Jeanne’s life’s work in the Catholic Church: “As his disillusionment continued, I knew I had to do whatever I could to help my Catholic parish … be a welcoming place of refuge and acceptance for persons like my son, and for their families as well.”

An example of Jeanne’s creativity and the difference she makes in the lives of those around her is how she modified an established parish program called Children’s Liturgy of the Word (CLOW) to become a teaching opportunity for teenagers with special needs. Typically a group of moms lead the children in hearing and understanding the Gospel reading during Mass in our chapel. Jeanne has set aside one Mass each month to be led by her group of teens. They meet the week before this Mass to rehearse their roles and become comfortable with their assigned responsibilities.

Imagine a teenager like my son Alex, who is nervous around strangers and uncomfortable speaking to a group, joyfully reading the Gospel to a room of young kids. My wife and I have witnessed the transformation he has undergone through CLOW. He has been given important responsibilities, has risen to the challenge, and has grown in his faith along the way.

With her musical gifts, Jeanne also leads a popular weekly program called Jubilee Music. This program is for children with special needs—ranging from Down syndrome to autism—and their typical peers. The format is a fun joy ride of songs, music, and games, with all of the children coming together for a special hour. One of the important goals of this ministry is to offer an opportunity for typical children to engage with and better understand their peers who have challenges. It also provides an opportunity for kids with challenges to model the behavior of their peers.

Jeanne is besieged with requests every week from children from local schools who want to come and spend time with her group, and she has seen for herself how the Holy Spirit has worked through this ministry. She related this relevant story:

“One Catholic school family that attends Jubilee Music, whose children do not have any disabilities, have asked for their children to be placed in PSR classes with children who do have disabilities. (Yes, this is a Catholic school family who also send their children to PSR.) They feel it’s important for their children to have these opportunities to learn from peers who do things differently and to learn about faith, hope, and love in a concrete way that is unparalleled in its impact.”

This desire to integrate and promote inclusion goes beyond these programs. Jeanne shows up at PSR classes, Bible studies, teen socials, and anywhere her “kids” are to be found. She works tirelessly to recruit typical kids to engage and befriend the children with special needs who are present, helping them to feel included instead of leaving them to sit by themselves, which too often happens.

Jeanne once invited three teenage boys to take Alex out for a pizza lunch by themselves. Alex, who desperately wants to fit in with other teens, talked about this special lunch for several weeks. By giving him this gift, Jeanne helped these wonderful young people engage more fully in Catholic life, and she also had a profound effect on their families—to say nothing of the impact she had on mine.

To better understand the impact of Jeanne’s work in her parish community and increasingly in the archdiocese of Atlanta, it helps to know what she is like as a person. Jeanne radiates joy. She is always engaging and full of energy, and she is a wonderful listener. When I asked her how this ministry work has impacted her Catholic faith, she described it as a form of healing for the challenging days when her sons were younger and not welcomed, valued, or included in parishes or schools. As she shared with me, “Having the opportunity to welcome, to truly get to know and to experience fellowship with persons with significant disabilities, as part of a loving community effort, is the very best, most concrete way to cooperate with God in growing one’s faith, hope, and love. My job at St. Peter Chanel gives me this opportunity every day, and it is helping me to give this opportunity to others.”

Jeanne shared a story with me of a CLOW session where one of her autistic teenagers, a tall, skinny young man from another country, did the first reading. He loves to read to the children, but because of his speech deficits and foreign accent, he can sometimes be difficult to understand. When he finished reading, a little boy came up to Jeanne and shyly whispered, “I want to tell that tall guy that he did a good job.” Jeanne saw a wonderful teaching moment, and she asked the little boy if he would like to meet the teenager. The little boy replied with a sigh of relief, “Yes. Language seems to be tricky for him, and I think it might be hard for him to bond with other people, but I think he did a really good job.”

Here is Jeanne’s recollection of the rest of the story:

“I helped the little guy follow through with our plan. I introduced him to our very tall friend, and he looked way up to say, “You did a good job!” My team member very proudly and enthusiastically said the most beautiful thank you I’ve ever heard, and he surprised us by immediately bending down to give the little guy a big, gentle, friendly hug. (Yeah, peek-a-boo, I see you too, God! And thanks for making this happen!)

When I got home, I called the younger boy’s mom to tell her how impressed I was with her son’s insight, bravery, and desire to reach out to someone who had struggles that were very different from his own. I explained that he had made a big difference that day in the life of a young man with a disability. She responded the way that the parents of typically developing children always do when I make similar phone calls. She said that being told that her child had been compassionate was one of the most important things to her as a mother; more important than his intelligence, his sports skills, and so on.

This only reinforced in me how valuable it is for Catholic churches (and Catholic schools as well) to be inclusive. Being inclusive is one of the most effective ways to teach our children Christian virtues. How could we not want to teach our children the most important things in the best way possible?”

Some families with special needs children have started coming back to Mass for the first time in years because of Jeanne’s programs and the parish’s commitment to inclusion. Jeanne has even developed a sensory-friendly Mass space in what is popularly known as the cry room. This popular innovation has allowed families who previously could not make it through Mass with their sensory-challenged children to now participate as a family in a way they never thought possible.

What are the lessons we can draw from Jeanne Lyons’s ministry and her passion for helping children with special needs? This remarkable woman, who wrestled with challenges at home many of us have never experienced, saw fit to view these challenges as a blessing in her life. What seemed like an injustice and frustrating lack of compassion for these children from the Church and others became the motivation for an education and training campaign to help others see each of these children as gifts from God to be welcomed and embraced. Jeanne says her dream is for all families of individuals with disabilities to “one day be welcomed with open arms into Catholic churches and schools who value them and give them the opportunity to share their gifts, living out the ministries that God has equipped them for in his infinite goodness and wisdom!”

Jeanne Lyons’s story is one of overcoming life’s challenges and learning to show compassion and love for the least among us. How do we follow her great example? As Mathew 25:40 reads, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” In reflecting on this Scripture and Jeanne’s ministry, here are four practical actions to consider:

Embrace others. Look around you at Mass at your next opportunity. Where are the wheelchair-bound, the people who “don’t seem to fit in,” or the visitors coming for the first time? Walk over and welcome them. Embrace them. Offer to help, and really mean it.

Love all of God’s creation. As members of a Church that promotes a culture of life, we are called to celebrate the lives of those who may not look like us or act like us. Learn to see each person, regardless of his or her challenges, as a human being specially created by God.

See Christ in everyone. It may be easier for us to volunteer at a shelter to feed the homeless than to show love and compassion for an autistic boy, a little girl with Down syndrome, or a disabled person in a wheelchair in our own parishes. Look for ways to recognize Christ in each of them. “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).

Turn adversity into ministry. When trouble strikes, turn to Christ and ask him for the strength and courage to make a blessing of it. We can allow ourselves to despair, or we can seek the good from our problems and find ways to serve him. One of the best ways to evangelize is to turn tragedy into triumph and allow others to see Jesus at work in our lives.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Have I dealt with challenges similar to the way Jeanne Lyons has? How have I responded?
  • How do I interact with people in my life who do not look like me or act like me? How can I more clearly recognize Christ in them?
  • Who have been the “angels” in my life who have shown me kindness or helped me and my loved ones? Have I thanked them, learned from them, and tried to emulate them? If not, what steps can I take this week to express my gratitude and follow their 
  • Who do I know who could benefit from my investment of kindness in them? What is holding me back?

This post is adapted from Joyful Witness: How to Be an Extraordinary Catholic with permission of the author and publisher.

Would you like to learn more about “regular Catholic heroes” and the joyful witness they give for Christ and the Catholic faith?  Randy Hain’s exciting sixth book, Joyful Witness: How to Be an Extraordinary Catholic (Servant Books) is available through Amazon and all Catholic bookstores.

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