For more than 40 years, the Achieve, Inspire, Motivate (AIM) Ministry at St. Joan of Arc Church in Boca Raton has gathered annually for a weekend spiritual retreat tailored to individuals with physical disabilities.
This year, however, the beloved retreat was cancelled due to the current pandemic crisis. “Because of COVID-19, it looked like our ministry was going to have to be put on hold for the foreseeable future,” said Larry Barszewski, a core team member of the parish’s AIM Ministry.
Determined to maintain the ministry’s outreach to an already often isolated and marginalized population in the community, Barszewski and fellow core team members felt that “the Spirit inspired us in a new way” and took to Zoom, the increasingly popular video conferencing tool relied on by many for social connection during these past months.
On June 27, 2020, 41 participants logged onto Castellon’s Zoom account for a day of spiritual renewal, reflection and fellowship. The theme of this virtual mini retreat was “A Day of Hope and Connection: Thanking the Lord in Adversity Changes Burdens into Blessings.” Retreat speakers included Msgr. Stephen Bosso, the AIM Ministry’s spiritual director and professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach; and Dr. Dennis Downey, a devout Catholic who is a professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania and advocate for individuals with disabilities.
Andrew Regnery, who is wheelchair-bound and found both physical and spiritual support in AIM three years ago, felt a new hope radiate from Msgr. Bosso’s lecture.
“His talk gave me some perspective on what’s going on right now, how to process the struggles, move forward and make a better world. I learned that God is calling us to be messengers of hope and we are here to be examples of his light now and after the pandemic ends,” he said.
Leah Riney, who has been an AIM member for three years, was skeptical about the retreat being virtual, especially since she looks forward to seeing her AIM friends every year. Riney usually travels from her home parish in Vero Beach to where the retreat is typically held at the Duncan Conference Center in Delray Beach. Being an epileptic who suffers from seizures, she relies on others to drive her to the yearly retreat.
“I will say that it was nice not to have to worry about transportation this year,” she said. “The mini retreat was just the inspiration I needed, and it felt so good just to see everyone’s face and reconnect.”
The ability to connect from the safety of home was an aspect of the virtual mini retreat that Margarita Castellon, Barszewski’s fellow core team member and long-time ministry leader, found incredibly positive during today’s challenges with COVID-19.
“There are such very few opportunities for individuals with disabilities to attend spiritual retreats that I couldn’t bear to see our one opportunity slip away because of COVID-19. At the same time, I was hesitant that going the Zoom route would work as many of our members struggle with understanding technology or have an impairment that makes using technology difficult,” said Castellon. “But it was a huge success and I’m so proud of how our members overcame these obstacles. They really embodied the mini retreat’s theme of adversity.”
Castellon also discovered other benefits to having the retreat virtually, such as having access to a variety of guest speakers from around the U.S., keeping AIM members who are at greater risk for the virus safely social distanced at home, and welcoming those who would otherwise not be able to attend the retreat. For instance, members living in Miami, Melbourne, Atlanta and New York City tuned in to the day’s online activities. Sister Josephine Sullivan, core team member and a Sister of Mercy who recently retired from St. Joan of Arc School to her native Ireland, will join the next Zoom mini retreat in August. Harriet Molinski, now in her 80s, founded the AIM retreat—along with her husband Bernie and the late Eileen Kenney—was able to join from her home in Boca Raton. The Molinski’s and Kenney were inspired by the late Kathy Molinski, the Molinski’s adopted daughter who lived with Huntington’s disease, to establish the AIM Ministry at St. Joan of Arc Church 41 years ago.
Nigel Ricards, who is visually impaired, connection with other Christians with disabilities through his first AIM retreat in 1984. Having worked for IBM as a blind computer user, Ricards adjusted to the virtual mini retreat by using Job Access With Speech (JAWS), a screen reader developed for computer users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse.
“I’m thankful that I have these resources where I’m able to join AIM via my laptop. The ministry reiterates that we are a family of God, inclusive and supportive of everyone no matter their disability. I feel totally supported by the ministry’s efforts,” he said.
Although the virtual mini retreat afforded some solutions to the difficulties imposed by social distancing, it didn’t supply a substitute for the volunteers who would normally assist retreatants with disabilities at a physical retreat.
“A large part of the AIM retreat is to provide respite for those who care for the disabled,” said Castellon. “When a loved one attends the retreat, we provide a volunteer buddy for them who will assist the individual with whatever they might need. We also have trained medical staff on sight for anyone requiring specific medical attention. This allows caregivers the chance for free time and rest.”
Both Barszewski and Ricards emphasized that the AIM retreat is a source of “mutual caregiving” for volunteer buddies and the individuals with disabilities.
“Both learn from each other as ministers to the spirit and the body. We can both grow in the Lord by each teaching the other about their lives, struggles and spiritual journey. Spending the day together provides insight to that new perspective,” Ricards reflected.
Until the AIM retreat resumes in person, the ministry’s core team will offer virtual mini retreats every other month, the next being Aug. 22 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. with the theme “Mary: Queen of Our Lives.” The Zoom session will be left open for an addition half hour for socializing. Those interested in participating can contact Margarita Castellon at 954-821-6077 or email@example.com. Registration for the virtual mini retreat is also available on Facebook @AIMSt.JoanCatholicChurch. AIM will provide the Zoom session information upon registration.