A local family, in conjunction with their church, has recently started a Special Needs Apostolate open to anyone in the community with special needs and aimed at providing friendship and opportunities for the participants.
According to Anne Mancini, the idea started nine years ago when she was asked to be a religious education program assistant at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Dawson County.
She filled the assistant role and has now been a lead teacher for eight years, in which time she said she has seen many special needs children come through her class. She and her husband Tony have a son who has special needs himself, and they recognized that the students would benefit from a special needs program.
“We had a conversation with our pastor, Father Brian Higgins, who grew up in a large family with a special needs sister so he’s really got a heart for special needs programs,” Anne Mancini said. “In the meantime Tony and I started doing a lot of research and talking to about a dozen other Catholic Churches throughout Greater Atlanta.”
Tony Mancini said that they learned a lot about other churches and how they handle having groups for those with special needs, and they were even invited to go over to Saint Catherine of Siena in Kennesaw to celebrate their twentieth year of having their special needs program. They then met with their pastor to present him with all of their research, and he was all in on the idea.
“He made a number of introductions, pulpit announcements, put it in our newsletter, our community flyers, things like that,” Tony Mancini said. “We had a fair where people could sign up for apostolates, so we put ours together and the response was overwhelming.”
The newly formed group, named the Special Needs Apostolate or SNA, saw about 20 people signed up initially and now consists of a core group of about 16 people, all of whom have a deep interest in seeing the program succeed. Anne Mancini said that one of the things that came out of researching other churches was the discovery that many other groups hold family fun nights, so they decided to hold their own.
“Family fun night is done in different increments; some do it quarterly and do it with themes, others do it less frequently, but the idea is that families of special needs can come together and have a great time with crafts, socializing, music, dancing and a nice meal,” Anne Mancini said. “The thing that we really loved about it is that it isn’t just about Catholic families; it’s about including the community wherever this church is located, so it doesn’t matter whether you have a faith foundation or not, it’s reaching out into the community and inviting others — and we loved that idea of inclusivity.”
Over several months, a committee met to organize the family fun night, which officially took place on Saturday Dec. 4. Tony Mancini said that about 50 people were present, out of which about 12 or 13 had special needs themselves. Attendees made crafts, danced and ate together, and because the family fun night was Christmas themed Santa even made a special appearance. According to Tony Mancini, the happiness on the attendees’ faces made all of the work put into the evening more than worth it.
“When you put those kids out there on the dance floor, the smiles you could see were just unbelievable,” Tony Mancini said. “We had kids with disabilities dancing together and just having a great time; we’ve gotten notes back from all of the parents that were there that they all just had a great time.”
Some of the members of the church’s Life Teen group were there to help with the craft tables, and several of the church’s Knights of Columbus helped with food, so putting on the event was a true team effort by those who go to the church.
“We have a saying in our church that we are family,” Tony Mancini said. “We’ve lived in a number of states throughout our careers and attended a number of Catholic churches, and this one really does have that feeling of family because people really work together very well.”
Included among the attendees were four families who aren’t members of Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church, but rather came from other parishes. Tony Mancini said that the goal isn’t just to provide a program and family fun nights for those within the church, but those outside of its walls too.
“This is not going to be a Catholic event, this is going to be open to the community,” Tony Mancini said. “This is for anyone who has a disabled child or loved one; while most of the people there were children we did have a few young adults in their 20s too and that age group is welcome to come too.”
Anne Mancini said that, as the parents of a special needs child, she and her husband understand first-hand how important the community is. After Saturday’s event, she said that a sign of success was seeing the attendees form friendships and exchange contact information to allow them to reach out to one another outside of the SNA events.
“We’re all trying to find other families that are like us that understand the challenges, and really building a support network, and that’s important in every community,” Anne Mancini said. “We’re a small community up here in Dawson County, so the kids are out there but the families don’t know that this is here, so to see those playdates being formed and exchange of phone numbers, that signals success for us for that evening.”
Moving forward, the SNA is planning to install a sensory room in the church and hopes to hold family fun night events quarterly to begin with. Events are free and open to any community member to attend.
“Anybody with disabilities has trouble making friends, so this is an environment where they can be with people like them,” Tony Mancini said. “There’s no judgements — it’s just a good fun night, nice food and friendship.”
Tony and Anne Mancini said that they will announce future family fun nights as they are created, and that anyone who is interested in coming is more than welcome. For more information or further questions, contact Tony Mancini at 770-403-4580 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.