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Deb Brown, left, and Krissy Hartung color bookmarks at the annual Jesus My Friend Retreat Oct. 28 at St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Omaha.

Jeff Carter of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha discusses a passage from a book at the retreat.

Retreat sparks the faith in adults with special needs

Every time the camera flashed, Krissy Hartung, 43, looked up from the bookmark she was coloring and smiled.

It was mid-morning at St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Omaha when Hartung noticed a reporter taking photos while enjoying her time among friends old and new at the annual "Jesus My Friend Retreat," held Oct. 28 for intellectually and physically challenged men and women.

With the theme "Sacred Heart of Jesus," the gathering marked the 23rd such retreat that Knights of Columbus Council 10108 at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish has hosted since 1992.

That’s one each year, except for a three-year break from 2011 to 2013, said Bob Burns, a Knight and event organizer.

Hartung, a member of St. Robert parish, was one of 20 men and women age 20 to 63 who attended the gathering. She hasn’t missed a single one since they began.

"I love my faith," she said. "I love learning fun things about Jesus and the Blessed Mother."

The half-day, interdenominational retreats draw people from all over the Omaha area. They offer an enjoyable, faith-filled activity for attendees, and a bit of respite for their families and caregivers, Burns said.

The retreats include music, crafts and stories, and each retreat begins with a Gospel reading and homily by Benedictine Father Eugene McReynolds of Mount Michael Abbey near Elkhorn, who is an assistant pastor at Boys Town and has been the retreat’s spiritual director from the beginning.

This year, retreatants also participated in small-group mini-plays, re-enacting the parable of the Good Samaritan, as one way to explore their understanding of what it means to be a good friend.

The retreat has drawn as many as 50 people in past years, Burns said, and he hopes more people will hear about it and consider coming in the future.

"It’s just a joy to be a part of," he said.

Burns credits the Knights at St. Roberts for the event. They help set up the Mainelli Center, direct traffic and stick around to assist participants.

Burns also credits his co-organizers – Deb Brown, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Patrick School in Elkhorn; Mary Norris, a member of New Song Presbyterian Church in Gretna; and Anne Carter, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha – with designing the curriculum, gathering materials and leading the activities.

"The retreats give the participants the opportunity to talk to each other about Jesus and openly share their faith," Brown said.

Father McReynolds said all the participants he’s encountered over the years are filled with joy and never complain about their own struggles.

"Their prayers are always for someone else," he said.

That selflessness, generosity of spirit and absolute faith in God is the kind of inspiration everyone needs, Father McReynolds said.

"There is such a sincerity of heart among the participants, you can see God’s love mirrored in each one," he said.

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