In 1999, Father Matthew O’Donnell at St. Bernard Parish in Tracy, Calif., asked Cecilia Trovao why her son wasn’t receiving Communion. 

Cecilia Trovao, founder of the RESPECT program, with her son, Andrew. Courtesy photo

Andrew, then 9, is mentally challenged and is on the spectrum of cerebral palsy. 

“There’s no program for him that he can understand,” she said. 

The priest didn’t know of anywhere she could take her son for religious education, so he suggested, “Why can’t this be the place to start, and maybe we could start with you?” 

“I agreed, not even knowing anything about teaching,” Trovao told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Serving wide spectrum

What developed was a program called Religious Education for Special People Encountering Christ Together (RESPECT), based on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program. Father O’Donnell came up with the name, and for the first year, he guided Trovao and attended the classes. The first class had six students, including Andrew, and attendance keeps growing. A recent session had 17 students in two classes for Communion and confirmation. 

St. Bernard, in the Diocese of Stockton, has 9,000 members. All of the RESPECT students are from the parish, except for twins with autism whose church doesn’t have a program for special needs. 

“I get children on a spectrum of very disabled with no speaking skills at all,” Trovao said. “One girl was legally blind, others have Down syndrome, and there are children with learning disabilities or difficulties with behavior skills. Some are Hispanic students whose parents speak only Spanish, and the children are having difficulty learning to read and write.” 

Knowing Jesus

Trovao teaches with the help of volunteers. Many are parents who want to be present in the classes to help with their children’s needs or behaviors, or so that they can reinforce the lessons at home. 

“We teach the children through stories, role playing, crafts, singing and all kinds of different ways,” she said. “It is such a wonderful feeling to watch them go through this and then make their sacraments. To see children 8 or 9 years old who cannot wait to make their first confession, and to see them practice for Holy Communion with such reverence and love is humbling. They are truly the most loving and responsive children.” 

The program is filling such a need that even though the current classes are ending, parents are already enquiring about fall enrollment. 

“It’s an enormous responsibility for our faith community to bring forth these people and welcome them into the full communion of the Church and to give them the sacraments,” Trovao said. “I think that they teach me more than I teach them. They have shown me through their signs and their ways, as we talk and learn and sing together, that they know Jesus deeply. Something inside me tells me that they are so holy and all we have to do is bring them into the presence and they will show us how to serve the Lord.” 

Andrew, now 23, looks forward to going to Mass and puts a dollar of his allowance into the Sunday collections. And when he goes to confession, Trovao said, he comes out smiling and holding a holy card.