Parish honors pioneer of sacraments program for the disabled

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Parish honors pioneer of sacraments program for the disabled

Lois Kozeny, 89, a parishioner at St. John Brebeuf in Niles, was surprised with the parish circle named in her honor on June 19, 2021. Kozeny founded the parish’s GLADD (Giving Love Apostolate of the Developmentally Disabled) ministry 50 years ago, which provides religious education for children and adults with developmental disabilities. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Lois Kozeny signs in American Sign Language during the Mass. She founded GLADD because her son Kurt has Down syndrome. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Kozeny assists Father Michael Meany in bringing Sean Lacey, a GLADD student, up for a blessing following the homily. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Kozeny assists Meany in bringing children and adults with disabilities up for a blessing following the homily. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Meany distributes First Communion to Sean Lacey. Lacey is a GLADD student. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Kozney reacts to seeing the sign with her name on it. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Kozney reacts to seeing the sign with her name on it. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Meany gestures to the sign. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Friends and family embrace Kozeny after the presentation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Michael Meany, pastor of St. John Brebeuf, presents Kozeny with her own copy of the sign. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Children and adults with disabilities pray during the service blessing the street and sign. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When a stiff summer breeze pulled the black cloth off the sign identifying the lane around the courtyard at St. John Brebeuf Parish in Niles as “Lois Kozeny Circle,” Kozeny herself laughed.

“That’s right, I’m always going in circles,” said Kozeny, who since 1970 has led a religious education program for children and adults with special needs called GLADD: Giving Love Apostolate of the Developmentally Disabled.

The June 19 dedication followed a First Communion Mass for two young GLADD students, Sean Lacey and Max Vaglienty, and was part of a celebration that included an outdoor lunch for GLADD families, volunteers and alumni.

A few moments later, Kozeny was more serious.

“It’s a circle,” she said. “That means it has no end.”

Kozeny was one of five volunteers who started the ministry more than 50 years ago, working one-on-one with five students. She knew it would be a lifetime effort for her, she said, because her youngest son, Kurt, had been born about a year earlier with Down syndrome.

Kurt is still an active participant in GLADD, which has groups for children ages 6-10, adolescents 11-17 and adults.

“They keep coming into their 40s and 50s,” said Jean Croke, another of the original volunteers who is still involved in the program as a lead catechist.

All three age groups follow the same format, with students gathering in one room with their “friends,” the volunteer catechists who work with them individually. The students have 45 minutes to relax, settle down and catch up with everyone else.

“They can sit at any table they want and talk to the other students,” Croke said.

Then the whole group moves together into the “holy room” where the lead teacher presents that day’s lesson, using everyday items to explain the idea instead of relying on books.

“We use bread, water, day and night, flowers, things they see every day,” Croke said. “Like with the flowers, we talk about how they come in all colors and all sizes and they’re all different and they’re all beautiful, and when you put a bouquet together, they’re even more beautiful. That’s like us: We’re all different, and we’re all beautiful, and we’re even more beautiful when we come together to worship God.”

Juan Vaglienty, father of Max, 8, said his family found GLADD when he was looking for a program to prepare his daughter, Amelia, now 10, who also has special needs, for first Communion. He had heard about GLADD and called Kozeny and left a message, he said, hoping to hear back maybe a few days later.

“She called back the same day,” Vaglienty said. “And then I thought she would say we would have to wait, maybe a couple of months, or until the next year, but she said she could start right away. She’s a dynamo.”

Classes have not met in person since the COVID-19 pandemic began, although catechists have made video recordings of lessons families could play at home, and the parish has recorded a GLADD Mass for the families to watch each month. Kozeny said she hopes to resume in-person classes for the more than 100 students in the program next fall, but it might take a little time to gather the necessary number of volunteers.

Many of the students are medically fragile, Croke said, so organizers must be extra careful.

At the same time, many of the students rely on the social interaction they get at GLADD.

“For the older ones, there’s just nowhere else for them to go,” said Peg Maher, another of the founding volunteers. “There’s nothing else like this.”

There’s also nothing else like it for the volunteers, Croke said. When she started, she was about 30 years old and had just had her fifth child. As a young mother with children in the parish school, she was involved in everything.

“Then as I became a part-time working mother and then a full-time working mother, little by little I had to drop things,” she said. “I never could give this up. We volunteers would ask ourselves, ‘We’re getting so much from this — are we giving the children enough?’”

The answer from the families has always been a resounding yes, she said.

Vaglienty echoed that, saying his children have missed their in-person lessons.

“The kids love it,” he said. “When the kids keep coming back even though they graduated from the program, you know there’s something there.”



  • people with disabilties
  • parishes

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