SEATTLE – Jennifer Wong struggled to find faith formation opportunities for her son Jensen, who has autism.
“We had to look around a lot,” she said. The family’s search ended when they heard about a special sacramental preparation program offered at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral Parish. Four years later, on May 3, Jennifer watched Jensen being confirmed at the cathedral, the first confirmation candidate from the Faith Mentors program.
“That night was so amazing,” she said. “It renewed my personal faith.”
Also attending Jensen’s confirmation was his teen mentor, Bennett Buchholz, a 17-year-old junior at O’Dea High School. Bennett has been meeting with Jensen every week for the past three years, offering one-on-one faith formation with customized lesson plans.
At first, Bennett said, he was chosen as Jensen’s mentor because of their shared love of “Star Wars.”
“In those first years, I was really able to connect concepts like the Holy Spirit to the ‘force’ and, of course, sin to the ‘dark side,’” Bennett said. “A lot of that really clicked with him.”
The teen mentors are also deepening their understanding of their faith.
“Anytime you teach something you have to learn it in a different way,” said Curtis Leighton, St. James’ director of youth ministry and young adult ministry. “As the teacher, they’re expected to field questions and engage with the material in a different way.”
Watching Jensen grow in his faith has been rewarding, Bennett said. “We started with ‘Star Wars,’” he said, “and now we’re talking about Ignatian spirituality.”
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain confirms Jensen Wong May 3 at St. James Cathedral. Jensen, 13, was the first confirmation candidate from a one-on-one faith formation program at St. James that pairs teen mentors with kids who have special needs. Standing with Jensen is his sponsor, Sister Stella Abellon, who was his preschool teacher at Holy Rosary School in Seattle. Photo: David Buchholz
A bonding experience
The program at St. James was modeled on a curriculum developed by Deacon Larry Sutton, a psychologist who specializes in autism and teaches at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “There’s lots of ways to reach kids with autism,” Deacon Sutton said. “I found that if their teachers are kids closer to their age, they listen in a really different way. It just takes an understanding of who the child is.”
Understanding each child, in part, is the work of Brenda Bellamy, coordinator for children’s faith formation at St. James. Bellamy meets with each family of the students in the program (eight are currently enrolled), then tries to tailor the curriculum to each child’s ability and interests.
“It’s been a good challenge of getting to know the students and what works best for the mentor and mentee,” Bellamy said. She also is training the teen mentors to create lesson plans.
Adult volunteers are on hand during each session to make sure everyone is safe and on task, Bellamy said. Rufo Calvo, who has served as the head adult volunteer for the past three years, sets up the class, sends out email reminders, takes attendance and makes sure the 10–12 teen mentors have the tools they need.
Calvo said he has enjoyed not only seeing the kids receiving their sacraments, but also watching the relationships that develop between the students and their teen mentors.
“You can see how they bond,” Calvo said. “Every teen mentor has had a different approach based on the needs of the child they are working with.”
The teens learn how to be attuned to those needs during twice-yearly training sessions that Deacon Sutton leads in person (the adult supervisors attend, too). The biggest things he learned, Bennett said, were being aware of when to take a break and how to give Jensen the attention he needs. “Sometimes I just needed to take Jensen out of the classroom and away from the other students,” he said.
Elena Mathias celebrates her first Communion with her faith formation mentors, Gemini Samarasinghe, left, and Jocelyn Daniels. Elena participated in a faith formation program at St. James Cathedral that pairs teen mentors with kids who have special needs. Photo: Noelle Mathias
While their children are meeting with their teen mentors, the parents have an opportunity to gather. “It’s important to have a place where parents can talk about their kids and their experiences,” Bellamy said.
Noelle Mathias, a parishioner at St. James, said she has enjoyed meeting other families who have faced the same challenges. “It has helped us a great deal knowing other parents struggle in helping their child learn their faith,” she said.
Seeing her daughter Elena, who has autism, receive her first Communion through the program last year was “something we thought she’d never do,” Mathias said. “As a family we were just so proud and happy.”
The special needs program at St. James has “made us feel more welcome at church,” Mathias said. “Even if my child has an outburst, I get the sense that people around us understand.”
That understanding may grow as students in the program discern how they would like to serve the parish. Now that Jensen has been confirmed, he’s thinking about being an altar server, his mother said. And if he does, Bennett said, he’ll be up there serving with him.
“It’s been an absolute honor to be with Jensen on his faith journey,” Bennett said. “I’m excited to see where he goes next.”