SPRED showcases God’s love, compassion for all his children

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sam Forsberg has severe physical and mental disabilities and, according to his mother, Jeanne, “a list of diagnoses as long as your arm.” During Sam’s early childhood, the family would attend Mass, but Sam’s noise level and the congregation’s glances put an end to that practice.

“We were in despair as to what we might do,” Jeanne Forsberg said.

At age 6, the Forsbergs entered Sam in SPRED, an acronym for Special Religious Development. There, Sam slowly began to connect with the Catholic faith. When Forsberg witnessed an 8-year-old Sam blowing kisses at a mural of Jesus, she recognized SPRED’s impact.

“We all began to see that at the heart of the Gospel was God’s desire to have relationships with all of us,” Forsberg said.

For many with physical and mental challenges like Sam Forsberg, involvement in a faith community can be difficult if not nonexistent. SPRED offers the answer to many wishes: a formal archdiocesan program that sets the goal of having all persons with developmental disabilities (called “friends”) prepared for full belonging in their parish community.

“For those with developmental disabilities, there’s a need to feel love and give love and a need to grow in faith,” said Elizabeth Sivek, a SPRED community religious worker for the last four decades. “We’re not there to see a diagnosis, but a human being that God created.”

A welcome program

Founded in 1960 when Father James McCarthy began working with parents, special educators and catechist volunteers to promote and develop a program of special religious education, SPRED became an official agency under the archdiocesan banner in 1966.

In subsequent years, SPRED established an Observation and Training Center at 2956 S. Lowe Ave. (the former St. John Nepomucene Parish); created Mamre, Inc. as the organization’s chief fundraising arm; and translated SPRED publications and sessions into Spanish. SPRED communities, accommodating a litany of developmental issues from autism to cerebral palsy, now gather in about 150 Cook and Lake County parishes.

“People are excited to have this opportunity, particularly parents who want to develop an awareness of God in their lives,” said Eileen Rose, a SPRED catechist for 10 years at St. Mary Parish in Riverside. “SPRED is a place of welcome and spirit for all.”

A concrete mission

SPRED communities gather persons according to chronological age: 6 to 10 years old; 11 to 16; 17 to 21; and 22 and up. Adults can be involved with SPRED well into their senior years. In most cases, four neighboring parishes will each handle one age group so parents do not have to travel far for participation.

SPRED programs typically host six friends and eight staff. Each center has a core team of a church representative, catechist leaders and an activity catechist, while each friend has a one-on-one volunteer catechist. The SPRED office, still under the direction of McCarthy, supports catechist communities with a consistent process of training and action, including catechetical materials for each of the four age groups, reflection weekends, opportunities for catechesis observation and coordination.

Rather than looking at theology as an intellectual endeavor of content and facts, SPRED utilizes the Montessori teaching method and urges friends to reflect on their individual life experiences to see places where God enters.

“We’re trying to draw on hope, joy and celebration,” said Julia Hess, a SPRED field worker who started the program at Queen of Angels, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave., in 1979 with her husband, Robert. “We might not be on the same intellectual plane, but we can be on the same emotional plane and this is where our friends seem to enter into the mystery better.”

Far-reaching impact

Rose said her decade-long involvement with SPRED has reminded her of God’s presence and heightened her own faith.

“I receive so much joy, fulfillment and faith from the work and that’s precisely why I make time for it each year,” Rose said.

The same benefit holds true for Hess, who began with SPRED after her 6-year-old daughter passed away following heart surgery. SPRED has been both a healing and evangelization tool as well as a home to reflect and share faith with others.

“The intimacy of the small faith community is a nourishing and life-giving experience,” Hess said.

For the Forsbergs, Sam’s involvement in SPRED has been a gift, allowing Sam and the family to participate in liturgy together. Now 29, Sam will follow the liturgy’s routine, make sounds during songs and receive Communion.

“And he’s beaming every time he gets Communion,” his mother said.

In addition to giving Sam an awareness of what it means to be a part of God’s family, Sam serves as a shining example of SPRED’s powerful effect on family lives and parish communities.

“He’s our evangelist, educating us and the congregation,” Jeanne Forsberg said of Sam. “So many of us parents will hide our children because it’s too hard. SPRED helps us bring them out into the open where they belong.”