It is called the exceptional ministry, a ministry that helps those with “exceptional needs” feel a welcome part of the St. Rita Catholic Church community in Solon. The ministry, now in its eighth year, was founded by parish members like Cynthia DelSignore, who felt it was their lives’ work–work God called them to do.
Ms. DelSignore, of Reminderville, works diligently through the exceptional ministry to help support people with special needs. She enables them to become active members of the church through preparation for their sacraments, accommodations for attending services and other family support.
Ms. DelSignore and the other volunteers at St. Rita are also the “busy bees” who work to hold the Very Special Breakfast with St. Nicholas, a breakfast for children (and adults) with special needs that will host 100 attendees on Dec. 3.
What started as a holiday get-together for 10 to 15 people now includes 35 special-needs guests and their siblings and families. The brainchild of Ms. DelSignore, it also includes almost 100 volunteers, whom she recruits. At the event, they do everything from cooking the pancake-and-sausage breakfast and working at the arts-and-crafts table to wrapping and distributing hand-selected gifts for the attendees, singing Christmas carols and even taking keepsake photos with St. Nicholas himself, aka St. Rita Deacon Mark Janezic.
Ms. DelSignore works all year long, putting in countless volunteer hours, thinking of and devising ways to make the breakfast more successful, entertaining and enjoyable and finding “exceptional” children and adults who will benefit from an event that is designed especially for them.
There is a sensory area for those who may get overwhelmed. There are volunteers available to help with wheelchairs and specialized seating. Thought is put into everything from the layout of the tables to the break time between activities so that the children with exceptional needs will be comfortable.
Ms. DelSignore knows about attending events with an exceptional child. Her son Vincent, now 16, has autism. She said that she believes “it was the Holy Spirit working through Vincent” that allowed St. Rita’s exceptional ministry to become what it is today.
“I came to the church when my son Vincent was 8 years old, and, in our faith, at age 8, you make your First Communion. I came to the church to see if it was possible for Vincent to be able to make his communion,” she said. “I was met with such caring, such compassion. The church members assured me that they would do whatever was necessary; they would meet us where we were, where Vincent was, and they would accommodate him.”
She said it might have been her passion, or Vincent stepping up at the right time, but the parish leadership realized that they needed to do more for those with special or exceptional needs. And thus, the exceptional ministry was formed.
“You can see that God works through Cynthia,” said Corey Lasko, an administrative member and former youth minister for the parish. “She is just so helpful, always checking in with families, always working to make their experience here better.”
Ms. DelSignore decided that the exceptional children she works with needed to enjoy a holiday rite of passage – a breakfast or lunch with Santa. But at St. Rita Church and School, it is St. Nicholas who comes bearing gifts at Christmastime.
And that is how the unique holiday event, a Very Special Breakfast with St. Nicholas, was born.
Girl Scouts, St. Rita students, high school students in service organizations and the many volunteers from St. Rita Parish make this now-yearly event possible. The Solon Benevolent Fund and Home Helpers organizations provide donations. Ms. DelSignore even receives toys through an Amazon Wish List she created this year, garnering donations from all over the country.
She used to shop and wrap most of the gifts for attendees herself, creating a gift checklist to find out the children’s favorite toys and activities. But over the years, her enthusiasm and the feeling of pride the event gives to the St. Rita community is what keeps it highlighted on her volunteers’ calendars every year.
“It gives so much to the attendees but to the volunteers as well,” she said. “It’s just the most wonderful event. To see these exceptional children enjoying the event, it just makes your heart full.”
Attendees at this year’s event will range in age from three to 57. Ms. DelSignore said there is no age limit to who can attend. There are no children who are turned away.
“As a special-needs parent myself, I know what these families are thinking. I know what concerns they have,” she added.
She said her son Vincent has looked forward to the event for the past several years, but this year he’s serving as a volunteer. “We are putting him to work,” she said with a laugh, explaining that Vincent loves to cook and will help with food preparation.
Also volunteering at the breakfast will be Ms. DelSignore’s younger son, Dominic, 13, and her “very understanding and helpful husband,” Andy.
She said one special guest at this year’s breakfast will be a special-needs service dog named Bernie, the subject of a book series about animals with special needs, “Bernie the One-Eyed Puppy.” Bernie has only one eye.
Ms. DelSignore found out about Bernie because he visited Camp Sunshine in Aurora, a camp for children with special needs that her son attended and for which she is a member of the board.
Ms. DelSignore said hosting a dog with an exceptional need seemed like a perfect fit for this event. Attendees with exceptional needs come from all over Northeast Ohio.
“We just want to reach out to anyone else whose family member might enjoy this event,” she said.
In fact, Ms. DelSignore said she hopes that anyone who might benefit from attending the Very Special Breakfast with St. Nicholas, or volunteering at it, will contact her, via her “exceptional ministry” email, firstname.lastname@example.org.