Whether it's through singing songs, making a cross from a palm branch, or listening to Bible stories, special needs students from the Altoona Area Junior High School have fun learning about God Monday mornings through the Ecumenical Conference of Greater Altoona's religious education classes.
The program is authorized by the Pennsylvania School Code and the Altoona School District, although classes must be held off school grounds.
St. James Lutheran Church hosts the program each week in its fellowship hall.
Eileen Becker, board member and coordinator of religious programs for the Ecumenical Conference, said the program started in 1975.
"According to the Pennsylvania School Code, children can have an hour a week of religious education," she said. "It must be approved by the school board and a recognized group has to sponsor it."
Becker said there is class for special needs elementary students at Juniata United Methodist Church and one for special needs senior high students at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Altoona, but there was not one at the junior high level for two years.
Becker said religious education for children in this age group is valuable in light of the temptations and distractions they face.
"A lot of kids need to know that somebody cares for them. It's good that they learn that God still loves them," Becker said.
Leanne Fanala, Altoona Area Junior High School life skills teacher, said students from two of her classes attend the religious education classes.
"Half of my kids go. They get permission from their parents," she said. "They're intellectually challenged kids who are with a special education teacher all day. Some are autistic, some have Down's Syndrome. They're at varying levels."
Deacon Jack Hoffer of St. Luke's Episcopal Church said the junior high classes came about when he was approached by Tom Irwin, who runs the senior high program.
"He knew there was no program at the junior high," Hoffer said.
Hoffer worked with Rev. Peter Helmer, pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, to establish the class.
St. James was chosen for the location because it is handicapped-accessible and next to the junior high. Classes began March 22 and ended Monday. Along with St. Luke's and St. James, Faith United Methodist Church supplies five volunteers every week for the program.
Hoffer said the classes are nondenominational and open to children of all faiths.
"We have some Protestants and some Roman Catholics," he said. He said classes concentrated on the Lord's Prayer. Primarily the love of God and love of each other, trying to teach them to be loving people," he said.
Helmer said 17 students are registered for the religious education classes. He teaches the class, leads the songs and takes the student's prayer requests.
Helmer said the lessons need to be somewhat modified for the special needs students.
"We try to keep things simple," he said. "It's a wonderful challenge. We have some wonderful children. It's been a blessing to teach."