Retreat offers spiritual growth for those with special needs

ORLANDO – It was a Saturday morning, May 13. The slightly overcast sky offered shade and a lovely breeze while seven adults with special needs made their way about the beautiful grounds of San Pedro Spiritual Development Center in Winter Park, looking and listening for sounds of God’s creation.

This joyful group was at San Pedro on a retreat. All were former students of Morning Star School in Orlando, a school for individuals with special needs which offers them an opportunity “to embrace their potential,” academically, spiritually, socially, physically and emotionally.

Kathy Harding wanted to breathe new life into the spiritual element of that journey. As Catholic outreach coordinator for those with special needs, Harding strives to ensure that those with special needs are active participants in their parish communities because they are an integral part of the Body of Christ.

While some Morning Star graduates go on to become residents of Bishop Grady Villas, an independent living facility for adults with special needs, and have retreats available to them there, Harding hopes to expand the opportunities for spiritual growth to others as well.

“We’re hoping this will be the first of annual retreats.  Next year we hope to open it to any adult with special needs throughout the Diocese,” Harding explained.

Henry Fortier, secretary of education and superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orlando, said it was important to offer this retreat because “The students at Morning Star Catholic School graduate at the age of 21 and then have limited if any options for adult faith formation after graduation. One of the participants was in his 60’s and attended Morning Star back in 1974. As a Catholic community it is imperative that we continue to provide opportunities for our Morning Star alumni, and all adults with special needs, the chance to deepen their relationship with God.”

Franciscan Brother Randall Pinner, San Pedro’s director who spent two years as a nurse at Morning Star agreed.  He said, “The retreat for special needs individuals and their families honors all human life as sacred.” He added, “The dignity of the person is not diminished because of any limitations. All life is sacred and should be honored for all people.”

To do this, Harding met with Brother Pinner and together they planned a spiritual retreat for the Morning Star graduates. Brother Pinner said he and Harding wanted to meet the needs of the participants while introducing the spirituality of the center and Franciscan themes, one of which is the care for creation. A reading from Genesis helped set the stage for conversation. Participants spoke of the many things God had created. Cameron, one of the retreatants noted, “God made us.”

When asked how we take care of our planet, immediately hands went up.  Vicky, another participant, called out, “Recycling” and added, “We take care of each other.”

Brother Pinner noted that the activities helped “address creation, nature and how to help our planet.”  Through an art project all had the chance to make a collage with their vision of God’s creation. Later, the group headed outdoors. As they walked on a path through the woods, ultimately leading to the lake, they saw squirrels and wild turkeys, felt the breeze and took in the sounds of birds chirping and even got to see where two snapping turtles made their nests in the volleyball court sand. As if on cue, upon arriving at the dock overlooking Lake Howell, an alligator made its way across the water.

Although the theme of the day was God’s creation and care for the environment, looking at old friends reconnect, share stories, help one another and laugh, one would think the theme was joy.

“If you want to know what pure joy looks like, then you hang around one of these special needs adults. It’s awesome,” said Brother Pinner.