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Whitestone girl’s story inspires special mass

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Randy and Debby Robertson finally started to accept that something was wrong with their daughter, Mary, in December 2004, when she was only 3 years old.

The Whitestone residents had flown with their two children to Chicago for a family Christmas celebration, a highlight of which was a visit by a hired Santa Claus. When he arrived in his jolly red suit, bearing gifts for Mary and about 10 other cousins, they all laughed and screamed, ecstatic at the chance to meet Kris Kringle.

All except for Mary, who ran into a playroom and refused to visit Santa, despite pleas by her father, Randy, to join the other children, to be normal. But Mary was never going to be normal — shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with autism, and much of the Robertsons’ lives since have been spent trying to make peace with that fact and to treat the disorder as best they can.

“Once we realized she had a serious problem, we started looking for ways to recover from autism,” Randy Robertson said. “There is no cure for autism, but there are a lot of things out there that can chip away at it from every side, and it’s figuring out what’s right for your child that’s the most challenging part.”

That search has taken the Robertson family on a journey they never expected and has given them the opportunity to help others who are facing a similar struggle.

In May, Robertson self-published a book called “Finding Mary,” which tracks his daughter’s life from her birth to this year, when she turned 9, and documents the travails and results of all the efforts they undertook in attempts to help her from therapy to special oxygen treatments.

It became a huge hit with members of their Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, who bought copies and began to open up about their own struggles with loved ones with autism.

And one day a couple of months ago, after Mary had successfully navigated through a path fraught with steep obstacles and completed her First Communion, the Rev. Joe Gibino and the congregation’s faith formation director, Donna Spoto, approached Robertson about starting a special-needs mass.

“During the lead-up to the First Communion, culminating in the First Communion itself, he saw the community really pull together and help her through the process and he thought there’s other kids out there like Mary who could benefit from the community we have here,” Robertson explained.

On Oct. 17, more than 30 people attended the first special-needs mass at the church at 14-51 143rd St. Though it was boisterous and challenging, the trio knew they had found something good. They spread the message further through word of mouth and an advertisement in a widely circulated Catholic publication called the Tablet and at the Nov. 21 mass there were nearly 70 people hailing from all over Brooklyn and Queens.

“It gives families with special needs children an opportunity to worship together in an environment where all those worshiping understand the dynamic at work,” Gibino said. “Some parents have felt judged by other worshipers or not welcome because their children cause some disruption. Others enjoy sharing their experiences with each other. Our parishioners are very open to those needs.”

And the mass, which Robertson calls one of the first of its kind in the country, has already started to achieve its goal of giving families with special-needs children a place to worship together.

“It’s totally flexible, we have kids and teenagers up out of their seats, laughing, screeching, but what’s important is families feel like they can go to church together again,” Robertson said. “A grown man with an autistic child hugged [Gibino] after one of the masses and started crying. He said this is the first time his family had gone to church together in many years.”

All are welcome to attend the masses, which are held about once every month. The next one will be held Dec. 19 at 12:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity. Call the church for more information at 718-746-7730.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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