SPRED Volunteers Learn as They Teach
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
September 19, 2019
DIOCESE—Two-and-a-half-years-ago, when Tina Antolak read a notice asking for volunteers for the Special Religious Development —  SPRED —program at her Crystal Lake parish, she hesitated.
“I’d never worked or spent any length of time with” developmentally-disabled and intellectually-challenged people, she says. “It was new to me.”
Antolak had, however, taught religious education when her children were young and, she says, “the whole idea of teaching people, helping them build their faith, I enjoy it.” 
So she called for information and says, “it sounded doable, which it is.”
Antolak started as a SPRED catechist mid-year, in early spring. She did the two days of required training simultaneously with teaching, saying the training “helped me to tie it together.” 
Alex is the young man with whom she is primarily partnered in the St. Thomas the Apostle Parish SPRED program, which meets Monday evenings, for young adults, 17 to early-20s.
“I felt a connection with him,” she says of Alex, adding the program is “very different from a traditional religious education class. But when I got involved and saw how it works, it’s really inspiring, and it really works.
“The whole experience has really given me an opportunity to look at faith through a different set of eyes ... It sounds cliché that in giving you receive, but honestly, I feel they help me. I am inspired by how they persevere, and the amount of love, devotion, commitment and respect (they have). It is a privilege to witness.”
Parish logistics 
Antolak describes the SPRED logistics at her parish: meetings four times a month, twice with other catechists to plan, prepare and review, and twice with the entire SPRED community of catechists and special needs friends.
Those whole community gatherings fill two hours beginning with 20-30 minutes of a calming time and small talk. 
One of the leaders presents the Word of Christ around which the day’s lesson is focused. The catechists and their special friends talk about how that Gospel reading works out in day-to-day life. 
Music comes next, followed by a shared snack where everyone participates by doing a little job like setting the table or passing out drinks.
“You really do see it in their actions,” she says of the special friends. “They do understand. They do feel their purpose in this overall plan” of God. 
“Some of these young adults have really challenging limitations, which has to be so hard for them and so difficult for their families,” Antolak adds.“They (families and special needs friends) do it with such grace, dignity and with joy. It’s humbling to be around,” she says.
Catechists change, too
Steve Abbs agrees the experience with SPRED can bring about some inner change in catechists.
“Seeing the message resonate with all the friends and my fellow catechists is really humbling and moving,” he says.
Abbs has become the leader catechist this year at St. Thomas More Parish in Elgin. 
As leader catechist, he provides the lesson for each SPRED session, coordinates the presentation of the lesson in the large gathering room — which his group calls the “celebration room” — and conveys the message to the special friends and catechists at the end.
That final message, Abbs says, “always is phrased ‘Jesus says to you tonight ... ,’ ” making it personal for each one there.
Abbs is the father of a son who has autism and who really likes and benefits from the SPRED program beyond early years in a mainstream religious education program. 
The mainstream program, Abbs says, “just wasn’t doing it” for his son. In SPRED for five or so years now, his son “resonates with kids in his group and with his helper-catechist,” Abbs says.
Two years ago, Abbs heard that St. Thomas More was looking for new catechists for their program.
“I saw what it meant to my son,” he says, “and I couldn’t shake the feeling” that he should check it out. After talking with program leaders, he acknowledged that, at the time, his son might be “thrown off a bit” with him as a catechist in the same large group.
But, he learned, St. John Neumann Parish in St. Charles might be looking for catechists. 
Abbs spent one year at SJN as an unassigned helper, followed by a year as a helper catechist for a special needs friend.
Hands-on training
That hands-on experience, he says, was important for him. Leader and activity catechists are not paired with special needs friends.
Abbs completed additional training in order to become a leader catechist. He says the extra training is for all catechists “to be ready and qualified.” He also firmly believes that SPRED catechists “really have to feel called to do this.”
The SPRED schedule at St. Thomas More Parish differs from that at St. Thomas the Apostle. 
In Elgin, catechists meet one week to plan, meet with special friends the following week, then have one week off. They meet on Thursday evenings and the special friends they serve are ages 11-16.
When asked what would they tell prospective SPRED catechists, both Antolak and Abbs have advice.
“I would say that the friends with disabilities definitely deserve to learn about their faith just as much as typical children,” Abbs says. Adults who  “feel called to do that (should) reach out and get in touch with someone in the area.”
“I would just encourage anyone,” Antolak says. “If you have any inclination to do something a little bit more, just have an open mind and give it a try. There are no contracts, You don’t have to do it forever. It is truly a wonderful experience, and a very rewarding experience as well.”