When Julie Anich was confirmed in the Catholic faith six years ago, along with the reception of the sacrament came an intense desire to give back to others. She wasn’t sure where to begin until completing a nine-month course taught by Franciscan Sr. Cal Leopold on “The Purpose Driven Life,” a book by Pastor Rick Warren.
“I began to realize that my job, working as an occupational therapy assistant with special education kids in the Franklin School District, might be a way that I could help out as a catechist,” she said. “I began thinking that if this was my thing, working with these types of kids, maybe it really is my purpose in life.”
As a new Catholic with limited experience in the faith, Anich wasn’t sure how she could help. She approached Karen Barczak, director of religious education at her parish, St. Rita, West Allis, and offered herself as a volunteer. Not long after the proposal, came the perfect student.
“We had a little boy in our first grade who was having some difficulty with the classes. He was a bit disconnected and having trouble comprehending the lessons,” said Barczak. “Julie stepped in and began working with him in the second grade.”
Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Tyler Olla, now 13, has a neurobiological disorder that is part of a group of conditions called autism spectrum disorders. Asperger’s Syndrome is characterized by normal intelligence and language development, but with impaired social skills, difficulty communicating, obsessive routines and coordination difficulties.
For the past five years, Tyler and Anich have met every other Sunday morning during the school year for religious education classes. According to his parents, Tom and Tracey Olla, the one-on-one lessons have made a big difference.
“He knows a lot more about God and what takes place, and is more verbal about relating what is going on in our faith,” said Tom. “She helps him to learn rather than just do stuff that keeps him busy.”
A combination of the age-appropriate textbooks and Anich’s ingenuity brings Tyler an awareness of Catholicism that might otherwise slip through his grasp. Because Tyler relies on routine and a relaxed learning style, Anich often purchases photos of religious icons, symbols, books and games to solidify the lessons.
“He knows a lot more about God and what takes place, and is more verbal about relating what is going on in our faith. She helps him to learn rather than just do stuff that keeps him busy.”
– Tom Olla
“She does such a tremendous job and is very creative with him,” admitted Barczak. “Julie goes out of her way to buy things from Catholic bookstores to help him learn. She never wants to be compensated for the things she buys, either; she just seems happy to be able to reach him.”
Asperger’s Syndrome can be frustrating for the teacher or caregiver because the person who has it may lack social skills and have difficulty communicating. Anich admitted she occasionally wonders if she is making a difference with Tyler, but she said those fears are quickly put to rest, almost as if God himself wants her to know that what she is doing, really does matter.
“On those days, Tyler and I might have the most amazing conversations, or (he might) ask me something that really shows me that he is thinking and wants to know more,” said Anich. “I don’t think that there is a time when we get together that I am not reminded why I still do this. I’m not always sure how it happens, but it’s either something I said, or some way that I connect with him that seems to click.”
As Tyler approaches the high school years, Anich is aware of the emphasis on servitude, especially when it comes to preparation for the sacrament of confirmation. She searched for a way for him to serve others and remembered the parish’s involvement in the St. Vincent de Paul meal program.
“We talked about how the poor people need food to eat and that by helping them out, they are happier,” she said. “Then we discussed making placemats for them so they would have something nice to put their plates on. So we got crayons and rubber stamps and decorated them for the South Side Meal Program. Making these placemats for them is one way he can understand service work.”
Lifelong Catholics, Tom and Tracey attend Mass regularly and are involved in their parish. They wanted Tyler to experience the religious education program like other children his age. Thanks to Anich, he is beginning to put the pieces together.
“I don’t know where we would be without Julie. It would be really hard and maybe he couldn’t even take the classes,” said Tom. “He would be very frustrated if he was in regular classes with the other kids. But this works very well for him – he is learning and he likes to go to church.”
Having a child with Asperger’s Syndrome can be challenging, but according to Tom, some aspects of the disorder are positive, especially when it comes to peer pressure and teenage rebellion.
“He is really a better teenager because of the Asperger’s and because of the classes,” he said. “He doesn’t feel like he doesn’t have to go to church because that is part of his routine. In fact, he wants to go to church and looks forward to his religious education classes. Karen and Julie are a blessing from God for what they have done for Tyler to get a proper religious education. We are very happy.”
As Tyler learns about Jesus, his faith, trusting in Anich, and social outreach, Anich is also discovering lessons of her own through the mind of a child.
“Working with Tyler has really strengthened my faith,” she said. “You know, I am not a theologian and don’t know every Bible story, but he keeps me connected to my faith. It is really doing something for both of us. And he comes up with these questions that really make him think … and they make me think too.”