COLUMBUS, Ohio — The SPICE program works to raise awareness, money for people with special needs in Catholic parishes and schools. Founded 20 years ago by Eastmoor resident Bob Ryan and his wife Mary Ginn Ryan, the program has grown to several parishes within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus.

Bob Ryan sees a ministry he created with his wife 20 years ago as “very Catholic.”

That’s because it’s focused on people with special needs, like his daughter, 26-year-old Megan Ryan, and he believes helping people like her follows Jesus’ teachings.

“It’s very inclusive, it’s very universal, it’s very accepting,” he said of SPICE, which stands for Special People in Catholic Education. “It’s pretty much based on Christ’s teachings. The parables, they weren’t about the all-stars and the athletes, they were about the lame and the sick.”

SPICE, created as a parish program at St. Catharine’s on the East Side 20 years ago, raises awareness and money for people with special needs in the more than a dozen parishes in the Columbus Diocese it now serves, Ryan said. Money raised for the program is used to help individual families or help parishes buy adaptive equipment or offer specialized resources. He estimates the program has raised more than $1.5 million at St. Catharine’s alone.

Ryan and his wife, Mary Ginn Ryan, founded the program in 1999, shortly after they enrolled Megan, who has Down syndrome, in kindergarten at St. Catharine School.

Enrolling a childlike Megan with special needs in a traditional public or private elementary school was unheard of at that time, he said.

But she was accepted by the staff and students, and now it’s no big deal thanks to the efforts of SPICE.

“We feel we’ve raised awareness,” Ryan said. “People say the best thing about SPICE is it’s helped to create and nurture a culture where special needs are recognized and help people realize they’re not alone.”

The program has also spread to at least three other states.

Among its services, SPICE has funded tutors, classroom aides, occupational or physical therapists and funds sign language interpreters at St. Catharine’s Sunday masses, Ryan said.

The hope, he said, is that people with special needs and their families realize they’re not alone.

“SPICE has emerged in our diocese as a significant program that has given many of our parishes ways to more effectively support a culture of inclusion within our schools,” Columbus Bishop Robert Brennan said in a statement. “A tenet of Catholic education is teaching our youth about the fundamental dignity of the human person.”

On Oct. 6, SPICE hosted a Mass of Inclusion at St. Catharine for the third year in a row, and, for the first time, the bishop gave the homily.

The point of a Mass of Inclusion is that it celebrates people with disabilities and their gifts, as well as having people with special needs filling the lay ministry roles during the mass.

The program has made a big difference for Marin Santorsola’s son, Peter, who started attending St. Catharine in first grade.

The now 12-year-old is on the autism spectrum and was often separated from his public school kindergarten classmates for different kinds of therapy. But once the family found St. Catharine, he was fully integrated into his class and the therapists and aides would come to him, Santorsola said.

“There’s really no stigma attached” to any of the disabilities the students might have, Santorsola said. “There’s just a really nice atmosphere of acceptance.”

Services that Peter had been taken out of public school class for, like speech therapy, are now integrated into class time and can benefit other students, she said.

“One big thing with SPICE is believing any time you’re helping one child learn better, all kids are being helped,” Santorsola said.

The fact that SPICE existed at the school, she added, was a huge reason why her family enrolled Peter there.

The ministry’s most recent challenge is working to raise money for an elevator to be installed as part of a capital project at St. Catharine’s, Ryan said. The $8 million parish project will be supported by a capital campaign going on now. During the planning phase of the project, an elevator was cut out of the budget, he said.

SPICE put out a matching grant and pledged $150,000 to go toward the elevator and believes the rest of the money will come through, Ryan said.

“There is a great passion for special needs,” he said. “It’s a tough thing not to support.”

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