Above Joan and Jim Sullivan say their daughter Patricia, shown below with Msgr. John Enzler, was the catalyst for the founding of Potomac Community Resources, which provides programs for teens and adults with developmental differences.
TOP PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN BOTTOM PHOTO COURTESY POTOMAC COMMUNITY RESOURCES Above Joan and Jim Sullivan say their daughter Patricia, shown below with Msgr. John Enzler, was the catalyst for the founding of Potomac Community Resources, which provides programs for teens and adults with developmental differences.

The “yes” of a family, a priest, a group of parents and a parish in 1994 helped launch Potomac Community Resources, an award-winning outreach for teens and adults with developmental differences that has been replicated throughout the Washington area and that organizers hope will become a nationwide model for church and community outreach to children with special needs and their families.

But the inspiration for the program began with Patricia Sullivan, a young woman with significant developmental differences who couldn’t speak and could not walk on her own, but whose spirit and love inspired her family and friends and was the spark for PCR’s beginning at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac.

“She was quite a young lady, she really was,” said her mother, Joan Sullivan, who remembered how her daughter loved going to Mass, walking into Our Lady of Mercy Church, face to face with her.

One Sunday after Mass, Joan helped her daughter walk from the church, and was frustrated about the homily, which was about serving others.

“When I came out of Mass, it hit me that no one was reaching out to us,” Joan Sullivan said. When her husband Jim returned home that day, she shared her thoughts that the Catholic Church “had never reached out once” to their family.

Jim Sullivan, a longtime executive with the Marriott Corporation who is now retired, had moved with his family to Potomac. Years   earlier when Patricia had been born, they decided to raise her at home, rather than in an institution. “When she was born, my first thought was, ‘Why did God do this to me?’ He didn’t,” said Jim Sullivan. “Gradually that turned into love and a closer bond with Patricia.”

When Joan Sullivan was growing up, “You never in those days saw disabled individuals. They were hidden,” she said.

The Sullivans brought Patricia out into the community, and sometimes in places like parks they could hear people making unkind comments about their daughter’s appearance. Later when the Sullivans had three more children – Jim, Katie and Brian – they encouraged them to bring their friends home and meet Patricia, so she wouldn’t be isolated. Patricia, lying on her beanbag chair in the family’s living room, liked hanging out with her siblings and their friends, and untying shoes of people near her.

“What it taught them was, ‘It doesn’t make a difference what your abilities are in life, what matters is, are you a good person?” said Jim Sullivan. “…All people need to do is have experiences (with people who have developmental differences) and say, ‘Gee, these people are just like me. They’re human beings. Look what they can do!’”

After Mass that day, Joan Sullivan called her pastor, Msgr. John Enzler, and the priest suggested that they get together with some other parents in the parish who had children with developmental differences. Soon the Sullivans hosted a meeting with the priest and about five other couples around their kitchen table, and that began an effort to assess the needs that different families faced, and to develop programs to help their children. Potomac Community Resources was born, and set up its offices at Our Lady of Mercy Parish, where its headquarters remain 22 years later.

After a series of focus groups with parents and caregivers in the parish and community, PCR began providing recreational and respite care programs. Tragically, a few months after PCR started, Patricia Sullivan died at the age of 27 in the hospital, surrounded as she had been all her life, by her loving family.

Msgr. Enzler, who was with Patricia and her family when she died, remembers how Patricia communicated with a smile, and how the love in her family spurred his parish to reach out – the message in that homily at his church. “This was a young woman who had a lot to offer, who couldn’t walk or talk, but who truly touched the hearts of our parish and parishioners,” he said.

Soon young people with developmental differences at Our Lady of Mercy Parish were invited to serve as ushers, lectors and altar servers, and the parish school began an inclusion program.

Potomac Community Resources now provides 35 therapeutic, recreational, social and respite care programs for teens and adults with developmental differences and has been recognized as one of the best small charities in the greater Washington region. PCR’s signature program, the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program, is named for Patricia Sullivan and on two Sundays a month provides therapeutic activities for people with significant needs like she had.

On April 16, Potomac Community Resources will host the 20th annual Patricia Sullivan Benefit Dinner at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, where leadership, volunteer and community partner awards will be presented.

Potomac Community Resources has partnered with the Archdiocese of Washington’s Department of Special Needs Ministries and with Catholic Charities’ Parish Service Program to work with local parishes in replicating programs to serve teens and adults with developmental disabilities throughout the Archdiocese of Washington. Those programs include Upcounty Community Resources in Montgomery County, Southern Maryland Community Resources, Prince George’s Community Resources, Brookland Community Resources in Washington, and a program in Mount Rainier serving Spanish-speaking families.

The groups have also partnered with the Special Needs Program at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington.

PCR also partners with the Archdiocese of Washington on its annual White Mass and the archdiocese’s conferences on faith, deafness and disabilities. Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has strongly supported those partnerships and initiatives.

Msgr. Enzler, who now serves as president and CEO of Catholic Charities and whose agency is partnering with PCR and the archdiocese to replicate similar programs at area parishes, said his experience in serving those individuals    and families has made him a better priest. “People said ‘yes’ to each other and to God, and blessings happened,” he said, adding, “…God has allowed me to see Him in people with intellectual differences.”

Joan Sullivan believes her daughter Patricia was chosen to inspire a program that has touched the lives of hundreds of families throughout the Washington area. “It’s amazing what she did, for a young lady who never said a word,” she said. “I can only think that was her purpose in life, to start PCR.”