It looks like an average old home on a quiet east Vancouver street, but for parents of children with special needs, Vanspec is a hidden gem.

The old convent is one of six centres where Catholic children with autism, attention deficit disorders, and other needs get one-on-one lessons about their faith.

“I said to myself: ‘She will never understand.’ But the strategies that they are using for her, they are unbelievable,” said Zosima Espino.

Zosima’s daughter, Faith, was born with agenesis of corpus collosum, a rare congenital disease in which connections between the left and right parts of her brain are missing. She suffered excess fluid in her brain, ear aches, and a hole in her heart.

“For the first three years of her life, she was between life and death,” said Espino.

Thanks to several medical surprises, which Zosima can only describe as miracles, the hole in Faith’s heart closed, the fluid disappeared, and the ear aches stopped without surgery. Now, Faith is 23 years old and still struggles with speech and motor skills.

For many years Zosima would bring Faith to church and tried to teach her to pray at bedtime, but she never thought Faith would come to understand her family’s Catholic religion. Then, a nun introduced her to Vanspec, a one-on-one catechism class for children with special needs.

Mom Antonela Udovicic has been bringing her daughter Bela, who has Down Syndrome, to Vanspec for six years.

“This is her fun place. This is somewhere she can be who she is,” said Antonela.

“She doesn’t talk much, but she communicates through drawings. When they teach her faith and religion, they draw pictures for her. In a regular Catholic classroom, they don’t draw pictures, they just talk. She would get nothing out of that.”

Antonela Udovicic and her daughter, Bela, who has Down Syndrome, at a Vanspec site in Vancouver.

Bela hugged a Jesus plush toy as Antonela shared how Vanspec has increased Bela’s understanding of faith. The young girl can now make the Sign of the Cross, and when her family members forget to pray before bedtime, she reminds them.

And, just this year, Bela finally received her First Communion.

“It took her a long time to actually take the bread, because she would spit it out,” in practice classes, said Antonela. It took one and a half years before Bela would accept the host, a moment that had her mother and grandmother in tears.

“It was beautiful,” said Antonela. “In a regular classroom, she would not have gotten the support or her needs met. These kids are special and they need places like this.”

Bela and one other Vanspec student received First Communion at a special ceremony May 26 at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish.

“She would have been lost with 30 other kids,” said Antonela. “It was just the two of them, and the priest was talking to just them. I loved it! The priest knows Bela now.”

Vanspec, founded in 1981 by the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, has been rapidly expanding in recent years.

In September, there were three centres: the home in east Vancouver, and one site each at Immaculate Conception Parish in Delta and St. Matthew’s in Surrey.

Now, less than one year later, Our Lady of Mercy Parish (Burnaby), Our Lady of the Assumption Parish (Port Coquitlam), and St. Mary’s Parish (Vancouver) have also opened Vanspec centres.

“The demand is there for the special ones,” said Lucy Rodjito, Vanspec coordinator. “They may not look like Bela or Faith. They might look like you and me.”

Lucy Rodjito, Vanspec coordinator, displays a painting of The Three Kings given to her by Vanspec students.

The program welcomes students with a wide variety of challenges, and it’s constantly growing. According to Rodjito, the number of students has increased at every site over the last three years. This fall, 44 students and 73 teaching volunteers will be part of the program.

“We want to have more site centres open in different locations, to reach out to everybody,” said Rodjito.

Vanspec, run mostly by volunteers, offers training to its teachers about how to educate children with special needs. Children that “graduate” (make the sacrament of confirmation) are invited back to participate as alumni.

The program relies on an annual $50,000 Project Advance grant for its supplies and other needs.

“We are grateful for the outpouring generosity from people through Project Advance that enable us to focus on running the programs and reaching out to as many children as possible, so that they too may know,” said Rodjito.

So far, 227 children have graduated from the program.

Vanspec also offers an annual summer camp for children with special needs. This year, it was offered July 8-11 and paid for by a local fundraiser.