[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]OSHKOSH — As a high school student in Beloit, Tom Mentele volunteered for a program for people with disabilities. “It was a way to help people who needed assistance,” he said. “I liked that part of it.”
While he was studying music therapy at UW-Oshkosh, a family friend who was the diocesan consultant for special religious education told him about a part-time position for coordinating SERV, an acronym for Special Education Religion of Vicariate X.
“I finished college in June and started working in August,” he said. He has been the coordinator for 32 years. He also works full time for Lakeside Packaging Plus, a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities, at its Neenah location.
SERV meets Monday evenings from October through Easter at the St. Josaphat site in Oshkosh. “SERV is mostly for adults, but we do have some teenagers,” Mentele said. “Most have cognitive disabilities, but there also are some who use wheelchairs. Each year we have between 25 and 30 students. We’ve had some who have been with the program for as long as it’s been in existence, 44 years now. We also have a teacher, Pat Branigan, who has been involved since the very beginning.”
Classes follow a text written for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. Its offers Catholic lessons on different subjects, but Mentele said the program is ecumenical and serves people of different religious backgrounds. The three Oshkosh parishes and parishes in Omro and Winneconne finance the program, and participants also come from Neenah.
“I think that it really helps the participants to understand that God is there supporting them and loving them and caring for them,” Mentele said. “That’s really important for people with disabilities because they really need to know that they’re cared for. But it also acknowledges that people with disabilities have something to offer the community, as well.”
The group breaks into four classes to study the evening’s lesson, and they then share what they have learned with each other by presenting a prayer, Scripture, song or visual about the lesson.
Another aspect of SERV is allowing participants to serve their community, Mentele said. “They don’t have opportunities to share their gifts and talents, so the acronym SERV applies not just to the teachers helping to serve this population but also to the students who can serve their church and their community.”
Each year, the group holds a food drive to benefit Fr. Carr’s Place 2B. Mentele said the SERV participants appreciate being able to bring nonperishable food items to share with people in need in the city. They also present awareness Masses where program participants serve as readers and prayer leaders and bring the gifts up to the altar.
And they know that the participants are being reached. With one particular student, the teacher wasn’t sure if she was getting through to him. But one night another participant came in who was experiencing some difficulties and the first student heard that person crying.
“He approached this person and said, ‘Don’t cry don’t cry. God loves you and so do I.’ That was particularly meaningful for that person,” Mentele said.
The volunteer teachers include Mentele’s wife, Mary. His brother-in-law, Fr. Dan Felton, helps at some of the Masses and retreats. “Working with the students and knowing how important it is for them to feel God’s presence and God’s guidance, that’s what’s been most important for me and kept me going through the years,” Mentele said. “Working with the teachers and (seeing) how much care they give the students has been very rewarding, as well.”
Mentele plays guitar at the sharing portion of the program each week and helps participants present their musical offering. He also cantors at Mercy Medical Center’s Mass twice a month.
“I think that music is a special way to communicate,” he said. “People with a variety of backgrounds and learning abilities are able to relate to it. It’s important to serve. I think we’re called by baptism to serve others, and it’s important to follow Christ’s example of serving others.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_message color=”alert-info” style=”rounded”]Your Catholic Neighbor
Name: Tom Mentele
Parish: St. Jude the Apostle, Oshkosh
Favorite saint: Francis of Assisi
Words to live by: “God’s unconditional love is a comfort for everyone in need.”[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]