Catholic Charities helps ensure youngsters can take part in the Sign Language Summer Program, a day camp run by Silent Voice. Photo courtesy of Silent Voice

Meeting special needs

  • May 10, 2013

TORONTO - When Delia Avarell’s two children were growing up, she sent both to a sign-language summer camp operated by Silent Voice Canada. As a deaf parent of hearing children, she wanted them to be immersed in an environment where they could interact with children with a similar family dynamic.

“They improved and developed their language skills, allowing for our communication to improve and become stronger,” wrote Avarell via e-mail.

One of the agencies of Catholic Charities that serves people with special needs, Silent Voice is dedicated to improving communication and relationships between deaf and hearing members of families and communities, said Kelly MacKenzie, executive director of the Toronto-based organization.

Along with the Sign Language Summer Program, Silent Voice runs a family communication program where deaf teachers of American sign language instruct hearing family members how to sign so they can communicate with hearing-impaired relatives, said MacKenzie. It also runs a housing program, a parenting program and a settlement program, along with one-on-one services for deaf adults to help them navigate everyday “forms and systems that are riddled with barriers.”

“We sometimes serve the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized in the community. Respect for their dignity, worth and right to participate in families and in communities is how we conduct whatever service we provide,” said MacKenzie.

Supporting the hearing impaired is just one way Catholic Charities works with the special-needs community. Judith Dempsey, a Saint Elizabeth Health Care nurse who specializes in palliative care, sees the impact of Catholic Charities on a daily basis.

Committed to providing a wide range of home health services, including personal support workers, nurses, rehab therapies, crisis intervention, mental health and palliative care services, Saint Elizabeth Health Care takes a holistic approach to serving its clients. Dempsey, for example, is also a eucharistic minister.

She has worked for the organization for 35 years and understands the benefits of helping seniors stay in their homes — and out of hospitals — for as long as possible.

“We’re improving their lives… We’re making it better for them to carry on in life and (realize) it’s not the end of the road. It’s a new beginning in the sense of learning what makes it possible for them to stay at home,” she said.

She also helps to alleviate loneliness.

“My coming into the home, it just gives them added support to know they’re not alone. Especially if they’re ill.”

It’s a rewarding career, she added. “And I feel blessed I can do it.”

At Mary Centre, an agency of Catholic Charities that provides support and services to adults who are developmentally challenged and their families, both residential and outreach programs are available.

“Our outreach programs are where we provide support to individuals that are still in the community living with their family, in most cases with elderly parents, and what we try to do is provide supports to the family so that they get a break from the care of their family member,” said Dominic Conforti, executive director of Mary Centre.

In particular, there is the respite program that provides both in-home support and out-of-home residential care at Mary Centre’s St. Bernard’s Residence in Toronto.

Many families approach Mary Centre because they want family members to continue in their faith — whether it be Catholic or other belief systems, said Conforti.

“Our parish outreach co-ordinator links with those faith communities, looks for volunteers within those communities and then keeps the relationship going with that individual and their faith community,” he said.

The people Mary Centre serves are probably the most vulnerable members of society, added Conforti.

“Our Catholic teaching is what we are. It’s reflected in our mission and the way we are involved in the community. We wear our values on our sleeve.”

Among the other Catholic Charities agencies serving those with special needs, St. Bernadette’s Family Resource Centre provides integrated parental relief for children who are developmentally or physically challenged, Our Place Community of Hope offers a social recreation centre for people with mental health issues and St. Michael’s Homes/Matt Talbot Houses provides a residential community for older men recovering from substance abuse.

(Santilli is a freelance writer in Toronto.)