For more than a decade, Christine Ruiz and her family would attend mass at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church (St. Kateri) as a split family.
The mother of three always hoped she could attend a service with her sons and her husband, but it was difficult for the family to do so because their middle son, Zachary, has severe Autism.
“Usually I would go to mass with oldest and youngest son and my husband would stay home with Zachary,” Ruiz said.
However, this all changed in October 2016 when St. Kateri began its special needs, sensory-friendly mass on the first Wednesday of every month.
The mass allows children to play with their electronics and begins with a reminder that noisy children are welcome to stay.
“It’s a family thing we can do as a whole,” Ruiz said. “Everyone is aware that there are kids there with special needs… they understand our kids are loud and make noises and need to have their iPads.”
Creating the special needs mass
Discussions for the special needs mass began this summer when Laura Diaz, St. Kateri’s director of family formation, began working with parishioner Theodore Regino and his family.
Regino was undergoing a similar experience as Ruiz, where he wanted to attend mass with his entire family, but was unable to because one of his twin daughters, Lauren, is autistic.
“The least you want to do [in church] is disturb the people in front, behind, beside you,” Regino said. “You end up not going anymore as a family.”
Regino expressed these concerns with Diaz, as well as his desire to teacher Lauren about Catholicism and her first communion.
“This was a long process. It took one person at a time,” Regino said. “But the willingness and the heart came from that one person: Laura.”
The pieces slowly came together as church leadership discussed the possibilities and scheduling of a special needs mass and as Father (Fr.) Tom Baker, St. Kateri’s newest pastor, joined the team.
Baker suggested that the mass be on Wednesdays, where services already do not include music.
“I’m aware of these needs. I was all too ready to help them feel included,” Baker said. “When I met Theodore and said ‘let’s do a mass’ he got very emotional because he felt noticed.”
Regino said he was grateful for the willingness to “go where no one has gone” and to explore possibilities of inclusion in the church.
“It speaks a lot about the leadership of this church that they were willing,” he said.
Ruiz also felt noticed and grateful that St. Kateri established a service where families with special needs children can attend and not have to worry about their children making noise or playing on electronics.
“What’s so great about St. Kateri is that they reached out first and saw a need and wanted to find a solution to that need,” Ruiz said. “From that springs out so much goodness. It’s always good to have that spotlight to know that we’re still here.”
The service is formulated like a normal mass at St. Kateri, just with smaller crowds and shorter observances.
“There’s an understanding that there may children who cry out who may be on earbuds with special needs,” Baker said. “Other than that there’s nothing extraordinary.”
With the special needs mass, St. Kateri is trying to address a problem they see in society, where individuals in special groups feel invisible.
“We’re trying to be intentional disciples so we wanted to intentionally notice a reality,” Baker said. “There are a lot of families that have special needs situations and we want to attend to it.”
Impact on families
After only a few monthly services, Baker said families are already expressing gratitude for the service and joy for being noticed.
“A lot of people even who don’t have autistic children said that this is a good thing and that we should keep doing it,” he said.
For Ruiz, family outings are rare and she sees the mass as an opportunity to bring an element of normalcy back to her family life where autism is not the focus of this part of her family unit.
“Our life is not normal so whenever we get a chance to be normal… that is such a huge thing for our family,” she said. “It boosts our family morale. It makes us have actual family memories together.”
For Regino, the “spirit of inclusion” within St. Kateri is what makes it special for him.
“It’s encouraging,” he said. “I think the challenge now for families is to accept this invitation and run with it.”
Importance of program in community
Some St. Kateri parishioners see the special needs mass as an opportunity to practice patience and compassion in an environment when children might be distracting.
“It’s like this thing I read somewhere, ‘As diamond polishes diamond, so soul transforms soul.’ That’s how I see this,” Regino said. “It really is souls transforming souls.”
Regino believes the success and implementation of the special needs mass is just a starting point to create a community full of compassion and equity between those who have special needs and those who do not.
“It’s not about quality, it’s about equity,” he said. “Now we need to give more equity to the developmentally disabled because ultimately I think the more we accommodate, the more us regular people just become better.”
He also sees it as an opportunity to make Santa Clarita an example for others nationwide as a place known for its compassion and conscientiousness.
“It’s not just the schools, it’s not just the church, it’s not just the restaurants, it’s not just the parks, it’s all,” he said. “I think a lot of people know there is economic value in that. If a city is known to be kind, people want to live here.”
Ruiz also believes community involvement and engagement will make a positive impact on everyone involved.
“People need to know that the more you let us participate in the community, the better we are as a whole,” she said.
The special needs mass inspired Ruiz to create a support group for families of special needs children at the church where parents meet once a month and listen to guest speakers.
“I’m very active in the special needs community because I remember as a first-time parent being completely clueless and needing help,” she said. “I want to pay it forward to those parents that might feel like they are in an isolated and lonely place in their lives.”
The support group allows the parents to spend time with individuals who understand what they are going through and can provide advice to those in need.
“It just really warms my heart and makes me feel better that I was able to help another family or another parent with something that I felt like I totally struggled with in the beginning because I was so lost,” Ruiz said.
St. Kateri said they are welcome to new ideas and programs and are always looking for ways to include more individuals form the community in their services.
“Whether it’s one family or 100 families, if you make one family feel connected it’s worth doing it,” Baker said.
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_