All are welcome: Bible Camp for people with disabilities a fun, faith-filled experience

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PROVIDENCE — The last week of June was an “awesome” time for Stephen McNamara of Providence.

“I loved it. I even got to serve Mass,” said McNamara, 34, who is on the autism spectrum and attended the Msgr. Sabourin Vacation Bible Camp, a weeklong event for people with disabilities at St. Patrick Church in Providence.

“He served as an altar server. That was a big thrill for him,” said Stephen’s mother, Dottie McNamara, who added that her son had been “singing all week.”

“Stephen’s favorite place to be in the whole world is at church,” Dottie said.

From June 24-28, dozens of campers with various physical and intellectual disabilities participated in the Msgr. Sabourin Bible camp, where they listened to stories from the Scriptures and participated in games, arts and crafts and songs that reinforced those daily lessons.

Each day, the campers — who ranged in age from 6 to 70 — also attended daily Mass, with many of them serving at the altar.

“The most important part for them in the camp was their being able to participate in daily Mass,” said Irma I. Rodríguez, the director of the Apostolate for People with Disabilities for the Diocese of Providence, which receives financial support from the annual Catholic Charity Appeal.

This was the second consecutive year that Rodriguez helped organize the camp, which she said was an outgrowth from her office receiving many requests from people with disabilities and their families to continue the diocesan Special Religious Education program during the summer.

Last year’s camp had 12 participants. This year, 35 campers from across Rhode Island attended, as did 20 volunteers, some of whom were teenagers and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities of their own.

“Our goal was to get them familiarized with the word of God,” Rodriguez said in describing the Bible stories, which often coincided with the daily readings from Mass. Each day’s activities —which also included quiet time for reflection — were all geared to complement the Scriptures.

“We wanted them to feel welcome coming to Church,” Rodriguez said, adding that the Bible camp was “open to everyone,” Catholic and non-Catholic.

“Everybody is welcome,” she said.

Rachel Gederman, 13, of Cranston, said she really appreciated the welcoming atmosphere of the Msgr. Sabourin Vacation Bible Camp.

“I thought it was really nice. They helped so many people,” said Rachel, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church who is on the autism spectrum.

“It’s a very faithful camp,” Rachel said. “They have so many good teachings, with really good staff and volunteers, and all of the other people at this camp. I felt really thankful for all that.”

The camp’s namesake is Msgr. Gerard Sabourin, administrator of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Community in Exeter. In the late 1960s, Msgr. Sabourin established the Office of the Apostolate for the Handicapped, the precursor to the Office of the Apostolate for People with Disabilities.

According to the Rhode Island Catholic’s archives, Msgr. Sabourin used catechetical materials to help instruct people with disabilities in the diocese and started Rhode Island’s first Catholic group home where he has shared his daily life with people with disabilities.

“They tie in everything so beautifully here so that it’s fun, it’s creative and it’s all about Jesus,” said Peggy DaLuz, a North Kingstown resident whose daughter, Alexis, 32, attended the Bible camp. DaLuz said Alexis would go home and tell her father all that she learned that day.

“There was something always going on here,” DaLuz said. “It’s pretty amazing all the work they put in for five days.”

Melbavega Huertas, a Woonsocket resident whose daughter, Wendy, also attended the camp, said she and her daughter felt the Lord’s presence among the other campers and volunteers.

“I think the best part is you feel at home with everybody,” Huertas said. “It’s so nice. You get along with everyone. It’s like you’ve known them forever.”