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North Hills

Teen transforms room at St. Richard Church

| Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Ava Carignan and her service dog, Oliver, in the newly renovated space at St. Richard.
Ava Carignan and her service dog, Oliver, in the newly renovated space at St. Richard.
Ava Carignan and her service dog, Oliver, in the newly renovated space at St. Richard.
Ava Carignan and her service dog, Oliver, in the newly renovated space at St. Richard.

Thanks to the efforts of one area Girl Scout, individuals with autism now have a calm and prayerful place to worship at St. Richard Catholic Church in Gibsonia.

Being on the spectrum herself, Ava Carignan, 14, recognized an opportunity to transform what was once an empty room — except for some chairs — into a space that would be comfortable for those who find the lighting, bright colors, sounds and smells of Mass while seated in the nave to be challenging. She chose the project for her Girl Scout Silver Award and finished in September.

“Sometimes the stuff out there (in the sanctuary) can bother people who have that disability,” said Carignan, of McCandless, who is a freshman at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and a member of Troop 50460. “This room helps them get away from all that and still be part of Mass and be with their family.”

Carignan got the idea after she got her service dog, Oliver, and she and her family starting sitting in the room during Mass to help him get used to the setting. Typically used by parents of fussy children, the space was stark and held just two rows of chairs facing the windows to the sanctuary.

“I noticed that it wasn't very prayerful,” Carignan said. “It was just an empty room. I thought the church could use a place that was autism-friendly and more prayerful. That's where I got the idea.”

Carignan and her parents started last fall by consulting with the church priest, maintenance manager and Wesley Family Services to think of ways to make the space autism-friendly while keeping it appropriate for church.

They began the actual work after school ended last year. With the assistance of her family, Carignan painted the room and then painted Bible verses and prayers on the walls. They replaced the old window blinds with a cordless variety to make it safer for kids, and went to the Diocese warehouse and found kneelers to place in front of the windows. They added electrical outlet covers with the image of Mary, a small holy water font and a bookcase that holds not only hymnals and Bibles but also fidget toys, weighted bean bags and other objects the kids can use when needed. She also took photos of different parts of the church and items used during Mass and created a photo book for kids describing each one's purpose called, “Getting to Know God's House. ...Or What is All This Stuff?”

The Girl Scout Silver Award is the highest a cadette can earn and requires 50 hours of work. Carignan put in more than 60.

Coleen Carignan said her daughter's idea was good not only for the award but also for the church.

“It was a space that needed a makeover,” Coleen Carignan said. “Part of the award was the project had to be sustainable, so something that lasted beyond the project itself and this is something people will be able to use for a long time.”

Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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