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Providing sacrament prep for special needs students

First slide

Nancy Emanuel taught only briefly before becoming a Russian linguist for the U.S. Navy. So she was surprised when her children’s school offered her a position as a long-term substitute special needs teacher. The temporary position changed the trajectory of her career.

“I absolutely loved what I was doing,” she said. Today, Emanuel works as the first coordinator of special needs for the Diocese of Arlington.

For years, programs for students with special needs have cropped up in diocesan Catholic schools, starting with Paul VI Catholic High School’s Options program in 1999. However, in her new role, Emanuel works on the parish level to see that people with special needs receive religious education and the sacraments, and participate fully in the life of the church.

“I’d like to think of myself as the clearinghouse for anything having to do with people with disabilities,” she said. “We have the pieces, but right now they’re just scattered throughout different diocesan offices and programs.”

Emanuel grew up in Westfield, Mass., and attended Catholic school. While in the Navy, she traveled around the world, and met and married her husband, Barton, in Japan. They eventually settled in Manassas with their son and daughter, and have been parishioners of All Saints Church in Manassas for 24 years.

Once she decided she wanted to teach special education, Emanuel earned a master’s degree in 2002 and continued working for Manassas public schools. Her last job was department supervisor of special education for Osbourn High School. She earned her doctorate in special education and educational leadership from George Mason University in Fairfax in 2017.

During that time, Emanuel learned her parish was launching a SPRED (Special Religious Development) program and she decided to volunteer. SPRED was developed in 1966 in the Archdiocese of Chicago and then spread around the world.

Only six parishes in the diocese have SPRED, which provides religious education to children and adults with special needs: Sacred Heart Church and All Saints in Manassas, the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, Corpus Christi Church in South Riding, Holy Spirit Church in Annandale and Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls. Church of the Nativity in Burke will launch its program this fall. Other parishes may have different programs for students with specials needs, such as St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield, which uses the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

As part of her work, Emanuel wants to establish SPRED at more parishes. SPRED kids require a lot of one-on-one attention, so it takes volunteers, said Emanuel, but you don’t have to be a special needs expert.

“Kids with disabilities are just kids who learn differently,” she said. “The whole concept of the SPRED program is that you’re not truly an instructor, but you’re a friend and you’re guiding them to find meaning and religious experiences through everyday activities. There’s a whole world of material available for people with disabilities.”

At All Saints, she’s had the “real blessing” of witnessing several children receive their first Communion or make their confirmation. “People think, ‘Oh they’re never going to learn, this kid can’t even speak,’ — they really can (learn). They can understand the concepts,” she said. “We have children who are nonverbal, who are quadriplegic, and they are making their sacraments.”

Find out more

To start a SPRED program at your parish, contact Nancy Emanuel at nemanuel@arlingtondiocese.org or 703/224-1633.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018