Fiesta Time ministry celebrates kids with special needs

| August 26, 2010 | 0 Comments

Anne Melchert and Brian McDonell, co-founders of Fiesta Time at Divine Mercy in Faribault, play with Luke Paukert, a participant in the program. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Ever since their son Taylor, 11, was born, Karen and Paul Sommers have done everything “tag-team.”

From grocery shopping to going to work to attending their daughter’s dance competitions, each takes a turn while the other stays home to care for Taylor, who has autism, and his younger brother, Nathaniel, 7.

For years, even going to Mass had been a tag-team endeavor for the Sommerses, parishioners at Divine Mercy in Faribault.

Then on Christmas Eve in 2005, the couple received what Karen Sommers described as “a beautiful gift” — an opportunity to attend Mass together, along with their two older children, Nicole, now 17, and Peter, 16.

While their parents and older siblings were at Mass, Taylor and Nathaniel joined other children in the church basement for “Fiesta Time,” a ministry for kids with special needs and their siblings.

One Saturday a month, Fiesta Time co-founders Anne Melchert, whose home parish is Divine Mercy, and Brian McDonell, a parishioner at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, organize a play group for about 25 children.

While the children run around, dance and play games like racing to stuff scarecrows with shredded paper, their parents get some much-needed free time to attend Mass together, go out for dinner, or just spend a quiet evening at home.

“It’s nice to know that we have that night to look forward to if we want to do something,” Karen Sommers said.

Sommers said she feels comfortable leaving Taylor in Melchert and McDonell’s care because they understand his needs. “They’re just amazing with the kids,” she said. “They love them unconditionally.”

Filling a need

Melchert, a speech therapist, and McDonell, a physical therapist, work at Children’s Therapy Center in Apple Valley and Eagan.

One day, after both had separate conversations with parents lamenting that they couldn’t attend Mass with their spouses because they couldn’t find someone to care for their special needs children, McDonell said to Melchert, “Somebody should do something about that.”

Melchert’s response, as McDonell recounted it, came as a bit of a surprise: “Well, maybe you should do something about it.”

McDonell thought for a moment, then replied, “Well, maybe you should help me.”

“And that’s how the whole thing started,” he said.

A priest acquaintance put Melchert and McDonell in contact with Father Joseph Williams, then pastor at Divine Mercy.

After listening to their ideas, Father Williams enthusiastically invited the pair to begin their ministry at his parish, McDonell said.

The Sommerses were one of the first families to bring their children to Fiesta Time. As word about the group spread, other families joined them. Five years later, six families with up to 25 kids regularly participate. Some come from as far away as Maple Grove and Rosemount.

“When somebody can’t make it, every single time that person is missed,” Melchert said. “It’s kind of like somebody from your family is not there.”

More than fun

While creating a fun experience is the main goal of Fiesta Time, some of the children have reaped other benefits from the group, such as improved social skills.

When Taylor began attending, he often kept to himself along the perimeter of the room. Now he readily engages in group activities. He’s often the first to take a whack at the piñata at the end of the night, a Fiesta Time tradition.

“He’ll give people high-fives now,” Karen Sommers said. “He’s not as apprehensive or nervous about situations, and I think having a variety of people in his life and the social aspect of this program have helped most definitely.”

Sommers also appreciates what the group has done for her other children, especially her two oldest, who are Fiesta Time volunteers. “They see that they’re not the only ones who have a sibling with special needs,” she said. “They have that support system. It’s a place you can go and just have fun, and there’s no peer pressure.”

Father Kevin Finnegan, current pastor at Divine Mercy, said he commends Melchert and McDonell for starting this ministry.

“It’s really their vision and they really have made this happen,” he said. “It’s not about some priest or bishop saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ It’s the people of God saying, ‘Let’s do this.’

“It’s a vision born out of love, and it’s a love that has no boundaries,” he added.

Anyone can start a group like Fiesta Time at their parish, Melchert said. “It’s just reaching out to the community, being the hands and feet of Christ, and sharing what you have to offer. . . . I think if there’s something that you believe in and if you feel like God is calling you to it, he’ll get you through it.”

For assistance in setting up a similar group in your parish, e-mail Anne Melchert and Brian McDonell at fiestatime@rocketmail.com or visit Fiesta Time’s website.

Archbishop’s Annual Mass for Persons with Disabilities

Mass will have a sign language interpreter. Free campus-wide parking available. Entrance for parking near the chapel is at Summit and Grand avenues.

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