April 7, 2023

Disabilities Ministry Coordinator says job is ‘combination of all my passions’

By Natalie Hoefer

Jenny Bryans tears up as she recalls the event that helped impact her career in special education.

She was meeting with the director of the group home where her brother—“born with severe disabilities”—lived. The man mentioned the facility had taken her brother to Mass, which pleased her.

His next words, however, did not.

“He questioned whether my brother should be [receiving] Communion,” Bryans says. “I thought, ‘Who are you to question?’ It was just so poignant that someone would question his right to Communion! It’s very personal to me, that right to be a part of the body of Christ.”

Bryans is channeling that drive—and her years of experience as a special education teacher and in other jobs that had her working closely with those with special needs—into her new position as the archdiocese’s Disabilities Ministries Coordinator. The role falls under the archdiocesan Office of Catechesis.

The member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis says helping Catholics with special needs express their spirituality and grow in faith “is near and dear to my heart. You can have limited abilities, but that doesn’t affect your spirituality.”

Bryans says the nature and timing of the job were providential.

“I was volunteering for Meals on Wheels with a 98-year-old volunteer I bonded with,” she recalls. “She kept telling me, ‘You need to do more. The Church needs you.’

“When I heard about this job, it was a perfect fit with my education, my background and my faith, which has always been very important to me.

“And the timing was right,” says the married mother of four daughters. “I didn’t want a position like this when the girls were growing up. But our youngest just started college. It was like, ‘OK, God. I hear you!’ ”

Bryans credits her predecessor Erin Jeffries with “establishing so many great programs and events. That has allowed me to step in and continue that work.”

She will continue those well-established events. But Bryans has other ideas she hopes to pursue as well.

One vision is to identify a “go-to” person for special needs and adaptations at each of the archdiocese’s 126 parishes.

“I think we really need for young families with special needs kids to have support at Mass,” says Bryans. “They could go to a point person at the parish, and that person could communicate the needs to our office.”

Maybe it’s pictorial Mass aids or a box of sensory items. Maybe it’s having an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, or maybe it’s someone to coordinate a support group for parents with children who have special needs.

“The key is for the family to have someone they can turn to at the parish,” Bryan says. “Then we can support that person in meeting those needs so families with special needs members feel welcomed and cared for by their parish.”

Bryans also hopes to pursue the idea of support groups for siblings of those with special needs.

“They’re dealing with a lot,” she says from personal experience. “They have their own social and faith needs, too. To connect with other kids who understand would be very special, for them to support each other.”

Bryans is also aware of the need for more assistance for the deaf community in making Mass accessible in ASL.

“There’s no priest in the archdiocese who can do that now,” she notes. “So maybe reaching out to see if there’s a seminarian willing to be ASL-trained to [celebrate] Mass” would be a solution.

When it comes to special needs in general, Bryans sees an overall need to “raise awareness in parishes,” she says. “Some don’t even know they have special needs’ families or how to approach them.”

She puts forth the idea that inclusion can be a way to raise awareness.

“Maybe we start by inviting someone in a wheelchair to sing in the choir,” she suggests. “Maybe someone has a talent to share at Mass but just needs some help.”

Such invitations “serve the person, raise awareness among parishioners and can go a long way in making families feel welcomed.”

Such ideas and visions will take time, Bryans admits. In the meantime, she says, “I really feel called to this job. It’s a combination of all of my passions.”

(For more information on the archdiocese’s Disability Ministry or to find out how you can help, contact Jenny Bryans at 317-236-1448 or jbryans@archindy.org.)

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