Maybe smiles are the universal language.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, seven young adults who are members of the Order of Malta or part of that Catholic group’s auxiliary donned matching burgundy T-shirts and volunteered at the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program in Rockville, Maryland.  

Founded in 2002 by Potomac Community Resources, Inc., that program serves teens and adults with significant intellectual or developmental differences and complex medical needs, including young women and men who are nonverbal. That five-hour respite care program gives parents and caregivers an extended break, and provides the participating PCR members with the chance to take part in art, music and other activities, supported by staff members, including clinical social workers and nurses,  and volunteers.

“Learning how to communicate with her was really special to me,” said Leah Favia, one of the volunteers from the Order of Malta who works as a TV producer for a media company in Silver Spring. The PCR member whom she was paired with is nonverbal.

Favia, a member of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, said when she sees her new friend smiling, “You know you’re nailing it.”

Finding out what makes her friend happy, and sharing that mutual communication of shared smiles has helped them connect without words, Favia said. “Jesus calls us to love one another,” she added. “…You learn how to love in new ways. It brings us all closer together.”

Stephen Riley, the executive director of Potomac Community Resources, noted that the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program is the “flagship” of PCR’s 35 therapeutic, recreational and social programs.

The respite care program is named for Patricia Sullivan, a young woman with significant developmental differences who couldn’t speak or walk on her own. She inspired her parents, Joan and Jim Sullivan, to work with other parents of children with developmental differences at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac to found PCR in 1994. Msgr. John Enzler, then the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy and now the head of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington, supported them in that effort to fill a need for families in the community.

Patricia Sullivan was known for her joyful, spirited personality. Tragically, she died at the age of 27 in the hospital, surrounded as she had been all her life, by her loving family.

In an earlier interview, Msgr. Enzler remembered how Patricia communicated with a smile, and touched the hearts of his parishioners and other community members, inspiring the establishment of an award-winning program that in the years since has been replicated in offshoot programs for people with developmental differences and their families throughout the Washington area.

“This was a young woman who couldn’t walk or talk, (but) who had a lot to offer,” the priest said.

The Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program –which meets twice monthly for young people with complex needs, and has another program that meets monthly for members with milder levels of developmental differences – reflects the joyful spirit of the young woman who inspired the founding of PCR.

Describing the program named for her, Riley said, “It’s five hours of really active, engaging fun,” where members take part in creative activities, including art projects, music sing-alongs, wheelchair line dancing, and aroma, pet and massage therapy.

On that recent Sunday, the members made rattle drums inspired by musical instruments from the Indonesian island of Bali, which they and the volunteers and staff members made with plastic cheese containers, sticks and walnut shells.

And whatever their differences, the participants along with the staff members and volunteers smiled together throughout the afternoon, as they made their musical instruments, sang Christmas carols together and just enjoyed each other’s company.

Riley noted, “Everyone here is a member – the staff, volunteers and the people with developmental differences. This is a community.”

Melissa Wyman, the respite care and community outreach director for Potomac Community Resources, said a bond of friendship forms among the participants and the staff and volunteers helping them. “They’re getting treated like any other friend. It doesn’t matter the differences. We’re all the same here,” she said.

She praised the Order of Malta volunteers, who she said fit right in, easily forming friendships, whether they were returning to serve there, or experiencing the program for the first time.

Longtime volunteer Lizzy Demaree noted that the charisms of the Order of Malta are to help the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, the people that Pope Francis talks about as being on the margins of society, and she said it is a natural fit for them to help at the respite care program.

“It’s such a great opportunity to give back,” said Demaree, a member of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac who now works as a commercial real estate broker with Colliers International.

She began volunteering with PCR as a high school student at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, one of several local Catholic high schools including Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda that regularly provide student volunteers to PCR’s programs.

Later after college, she worked for PCR as a one-to-one staff member, taught therapeutic dance, and was the first executive director of Upcounty Community Resources, a spin-off program of PCR in the Darnestown and Gaithersburg area.

“You can really see the gifts that love can bring people, when everybody comes together – staff, members and volunteers. There’s no greater joy,” said Demaree. “…For me as a volunteer, what I get out of it is a reminder of how small the world is, and how small our differences are.”

She said PCR’s programs are grounded in respect for the dignity of every human life, which is a cornerstone of Catholic belief and central to the outreach of the Order of Malta, a lay religious order founded in Jerusalem in 1048. With its medieval origins, the group maintains the chivalric tradition of calling its male members “Knights” and its female members “Dames.” The young adults volunteers from the Order of Malta serving at the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program are affiliated with the order’s Federal Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Demaree noted that young adults can have their faith tested by the culture, but she said serving at the respite care program “helps reaffirm your faith, your love of Christ, and your love of humanity.”

That point was echoed by another member of the Order of Malta, Peter-Anthony Pappas, a member of St. Mary’s Parish in Alexandria, Virginia, who works as a supervisory patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Noting the joyful spirit of the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program, he said, “When you’re happy and exude joy, that’s what they pick up on.” He added, “I feel I get more out of it (than they do)… You see the smiles, the joy, the laughter.”

Riley noted that the Order of Malta has provided grant support and volunteers for Potomac Community Resources since the organization began. PCR is a nondenominational, nonprofit organization and serves and is supported by people of different faiths and by many individuals and community groups.

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl has strongly supported the program, and with his encouragement, PCR 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 intellectual and developmental differences throughout the archdiocese. Those programs include Upcounty Community Resources, Brookland Community Resources, Inc. in Northeast Washington, Southern Maryland Community Resources, Prince George’s Community Resources, and Comunidad de Recursos Hispanos serving individuals whose first language is Spanish.

PCR’s mission is to encourage and support full inclusion of persons with intellectual and developmental differences into all aspects of community life, which are reflected in its range of programs that include fitness and movement activities, art and photography sessions, and annual beach, Halloween and holiday parties.

Central to the organization’s success are its skilled and caring staff, said Riley, who noted, “The staff are remarkably dedicated, caring people who interact with our members with great respect and develop relationships with members which are wonderful to see.”

In an earlier interview, longtime PCR staff member Renu Dobriyal said, “Where they are, we meet them there. We help them participate to their full potential.”

On the recent Sunday afternoon, the seven Order of Malta volunteers wearing burgundy were joined by PCR staff members in green T-shirts, serving about 11 members, many of whom were in wheelchairs.

Michele Chais, an art therapist who led the rattle drum activity, said it’s magical to witness the members enjoying a creative exercise, making something special with a variety of materials. “What I love most is the sparkle in their eyes,” she said.

PCR music therapist Amy Gardiner, a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, told the Catholic Standard, “You see what they can do, not what they can’t do.” She added, “You see the beauty in people, and God’s work in them.”

Susan Chandler, whose son Jason has been participating in PCR’s respite care program since it began, said, “He likes to be out in the community and world, and doing things to the extent that he can.”

Her husband Larry Chandler added, “It (the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program) provides a wonderful, social environment for him.”

And at the recent respite care program, Jason was among the members smiling happily as he joined his friends in the art and music activities. Noting her son’s exuberant personality, Susan Chandler added, “If Jason gets you in a hug, you know you’ve been hugged!”

Speaking of the teens and adults served by PCR, Riley said, “These folks are filled to the brim with gifts, talents and abilities, and we need to just let all of that shine.”

Riley noted that too often, people with intellectual and developmental differences have lived in the shadows, but Potomac Community Resources and its flagship Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program came into being because that young woman, and many others like her, had gifts to share.

“The most striking (thing) to me is that Patricia Sullivan – a young woman that many in the world would not pay attention to, or would discount or ignore – was the catalyst for the creation of an organization that has improved the lives of hundreds of people with developmental differences and their families,” he said.

Larry Chandler said of Tricia Sullivan, “When she was happy, she’d light up a room.”

Today that legacy and spirit continues in the Tricia Sullivan Respite Care Program, for participants, volunteers and staff members alike, who form bonds based not on their differences, but on the friendships and smiles they share.

Leah Favia, the volunteer from the Order of Malta who reflected on communicating with her nonverbal friend with smiles, said, “We’re just different versions of who God made us to be. In that way, she’s my sister, and I want to love her as God called us to.”