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A support group for mothers with ‘special blessings’

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Many mornings, Maria Buonocore wakes up to the sound of her 13-year-old son, Nicholas, bouncing on an exercise ball. Nicholas, who is autistic, has a sleep disorder that makes it difficult for him and Maria to keep a regular schedule. When they’re both up, she’ll make him a special meal using the few foods he can eat — waffles are a favorite. Then they’ll pray a rosary together, go on a nature walk or read. For a few hours, they’ll break with homeschooling and an attendant will do sensory therapy with Nicholas. 

All mothers are busy, but mothers of children with special needs have special challenges. After Buonocore and her husband, Matt, adopted Nicholas, the youngest of their four children, it became more difficult for the family to leave the house. In addition to autism, Nicholas developed medical problems, such as an autoimmune disease and vision loss. 

“Invitations from friends became less frequent, probably because I often had to decline invites or cancel the day of an event,” she said. “The change in lifestyle was a difficult adjustment for me as well as for my children, but I knew caring for my family in whatever way necessary was my top priority. (Still), I missed being with other like-minded Catholic women and wondered if others in my situation were feeling the same way.”

A fellow parishioner from St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Clifton did. Sally Crocker and her husband have five boys and a 15-year-old daughter with Down syndrome named Fiona. When her daughter was born, nurses and doctors told her that McLean Bible Church had an amazing ministry for special needs parents. “(I thought), why don’t (Catholics) have something?” said Crocker.

For a few years, she and a friend from St. Andrew held a support group that eventually fizzled out. Similarly, Buonocore started an online support group, knowing that mothers of children with special needs have a hard time leaving their children for in-person meetings.  

In 2016, the efforts of Crocker, Buonocore and others led to the creation of Special Blessings Moms, a monthly gathering at All Saints Church in Manassas for mothers of children with special needs. Currently, 50 members from around the diocese come to share their stories and listen to guest speakers. 

“Many of us are part of online secular groups specific to our child's disability, but it is not the same as sharing these issues from a faith perspective,” said Buonocore. “Being a Catholic mom of a special needs child is a rare vocation within a vocation, and caring for these children is intimately linked with our spiritual life. I wanted an outlet with other women who had a true desire to bring God into this process.”

Topics range from the spiritual to the practical issues of raising a child with special needs, such as how to fill out Medicaid waivers or how to set up a special need trust. Though treatments and therapies for various disorders and illnesses are myriad, sifting through them all and finding the right one for your child is a process — one that the women help each other through.

Crocker was told by the speech therapists at Fiona’s school that her daughter would always be nonverbal. But a private speech therapist who spoke to the group had another diagnosis. “(Fiona) has something called apraxia of speech, which not just specials needs people have,” said Crocker. “Essentially, she could not make her brain tell her mouth to move from one formation to the other. This year, at the age of 15, she blew out her birthday candles for the first time in her life and the room went insane.” 

Solutions to those problems can make a fuller spiritual life possible. Buonocore was told Nicolas had an extremely low IQ and would not be able to talk. But he’s recently found success communicating through rapid prompt method, which allows him to spell out words on a letter board. Instead of being frustrated and throwing a tantrum, he’s able to say what he wants and how he feels. It’s made a huge difference, said Buonocore. 

“There were years we stopped taking him to Mass because he was too noisy. My husband and I had to take turns going to Mass,” she said. “Now we go to Mass every week as a family.” Now they know, he has an age appropriate mental capacity in addition to the ability to communicate. Nicholas recently made his first confession and then his first Communion. “I never expected that,” said Buonocore.

Crocker, too, worked with her pastor to see if Fiona would be able to receive her first Communion, and she was. The encouragement of the other moms was critical. “Without the support of our group, we maybe never would’ve pursued it,” she said. 

During the meetings and online, the women share information, spiritual quotes, doctor recommendations, prayer requests and their lives with one another. “I couldn’t imagine when we started what this would be like, how blessed I am by these friendships,” said Buonocore.

“It’s amazing to be in a room with people who just get you,” said Crocker. “It helps you look at your children and your struggles so differently. We all have encouraged each other to see the true potential in our children. The rest of the month, you think about and pray for these people.”

The women hope that the concept of a Special Blessings group will spread to other corners of the diocese. “This is very unique because we are all Catholic moms who can truly understand each other’s challenges, support and learn from each other in such special ways,” said Buonocore. “(God) gives us each of our children, special needs or otherwise. He entrusted them to our care and it is an honor to raise them. They truly give us so much more than we give them as they change us for the better.”

Find out more

To learn more about Special Blessings Moms, contact Maria Buonocore at maria.buonocore67@gmail.com or 571/733-0233.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018