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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinApril 15, 2005 Issue 

Deep faith stands out in special education group

For more than 20 years, Tom Mentele has directed the program in the Oshkosh area

Second in a series on the Stewardship of Service

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

photo of Tom Mentele playing guitar for Jason VandeVen, Matt Noffke and Tom Flemming
RIGHT NOTE: Tom Mentele, Oshkosh area director of religious special education, plays the guitar for Jason VandeVen, Matt Noffke and Tom Flemming. (Dick Meyer photo)

OSHKOSH -- The really deep faith of the Oshkosh-area special needs youth and adults is why Tom Mentele says he's coordinated Vicariate X's special education religion program for more than 20 years.

"There is a real connection there," Mentele said. "They relate to God on a really basic level as ... a loving and caring Father."

SERV (Special Education Religion of Vicariate X) draws its 25 to 30 students from the seven parishes in Oshkosh and one each in Omro and Winneconne, as well as other denominations. Classes meet from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays - October to spring - at St. Josephat, Oshkosh, a handicapped accessible church.

Students range in age from pre-teen upward. Some have been with the program since it was founded in the mid-1970s to serve people with all sorts of disabilities, said Mentele, who became the coordinator in 1982.

Ann Ciske, then the Green Bay Diocese's consultant to persons with disabilities, knew Mentele's in-laws and asked them if Mentele might be interested in the program because he had taught in a special needs religious education program as a high school student in Beloit. After graduation, he majored in music therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

When Mentele began coordinating SERV, he was working for another special needs program in Oshkosh. He is now adult services supervisor for the Neenah facility of Lakeside Packaging Plus, which employs adults with disabilities.

An advisory board of representatives from many of the nine parishes oversees SERV. The board meets about five times a year and advises him of special religious education needs in the parishes. The representatives in turn help him promote the program. He also works closely with the Vicariate X vicar, Fr. Joseph Mattern, pastor of St. Mary, Omro.

Mentele supervises 15-20 volunteer teachers, some of whom have been with the program for years. He recruits others through the UW-Oshkosh Newman Center. Students in education or special education can fulfill some of their field placement as volunteers, he said.

Mentele holds teacher in-services three Mondays in September. This year he developed a teacher's manual with information on the basics of disabilities.

The book discusses "what to expect from the spiritual side. Teaching religion is more than a text. It's a relationship we can build. That relationship sort of mirrors our relationship with God. Anything you can do to help that relationship draws us closer together the way God intends us to be."

Before classes start, students fill out an application form that includes information on how they communicate, types of behaviors staff should watch for and names of doctors.

Students also list what they want to study. Many younger students request sacramental preparation - First Eucharist, First Reconciliation and Confirmation. Those from other denominations may ask for Scripture study. Mentele said SERV tries to keep that study "broad enough so that it does not interfere with what they hear at their churches."

Busing is provided for about half the Oshkosh participants. Omro student are transported by the Red Cross rural taxi program.

Sessions are divided into three parts, beginning with a gathering in the church, followed by 30-minute classes. The teachers work in teams with three or four students.

Most of the texts were developed by Our Sunday Visitor and Kennedy family funds, said Mentele, a member of St. Mary Parish, Oshkosh.

Teachers use a variety of activities - crafts, role playing and especially music, because music "involves the students' bodies," Mentele said. "They feel a connection."

In the last third of the session, students discuss the Gospel from the previous Sunday and offer prayers of petition.

SERV also has special events, Mentele said, such as the annual access awareness Mass celebrated recently at St. Mary in Omro. Students served as greeters, ushers, lectors and Eucharistic ministers.

SERV also collect food for Fr. Mary Carr's projects at Thanksgiving. Fr. Carr celebrates a liturgy for them. Other special events include a memorial and Easter services.

Funding for the program comes from the participating parishes, the Knights of Columbus, service organizations and student fees of $30 per year per person.

For more information on SERV, contact Mentele at 511 Grove, St., Oshkosh, WI, 54901, phone 920-426-5682.

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