LIMA — When Donald Cygan got the phone call that he had won the Open Arms Award, he was speechless and humbled. He said his first thought was of his wife of 53 years, Shirley Cygan who died eight years ago.
“When I lost my leg back in the 1990s from peripheral artery disease, she told me to get off my rear, quit feeling sorry for myself, and do something,” said Cygan. “I was having a pity party, I guess. She did a lot of volunteering, and she got me started.”
Now, Cygan can be found at St. Rose Catholic Church on most days. He ushers, counts the offering money, and works breakfasts, fundraisers and the annual festival. He also works at the St. Rose Elementary School cafeteria and helped to start the Life After Loss support group.
One of his favorite volunteer activities is working with kids. “If I would have to choose a favorite, it would be feeding the kids,” he said. “I enjoy working in the cafeteria.”
He was surprised to receive the award. “I guess I only have one leg, but I didn’t know people really noticed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. After 20 years, I’m used to it. It’s nothing like the original equipment, of course. It doesn’t stop me though — mostly it just slows me down some.”
The Open Arms Award was started 14 years ago. The first director of the Office of Equal Access Ministries, Kitty Kruse, came up with the idea of honoring those with physical and mental disabilities, and she also coined the name for the award. The Office of Equal Access Ministries advocates for Roman Catholics with disabilities in the Diocese of Toledo. The current director of Equal Access Ministries, Marsha Rivas, said that her office is a resource for parishes that are looking to make their buildings more physically accessible, as well as, offering tools and resources for churches in getting their communities to be more accommodating for all people.
These accommodations include things like sign language interpretation for the deaf, special needs religious education and Braille printing and audio materials for people with vision loss.
According to Rivas, the award is used in two ways. First, it is given to recognize Catholics living with a disability who actively minister in their parish and community, and second, the award raises awareness of the gifts that people with disabilities bring to the Catholic church.
“It is given with the hopes that more Catholics will welcome people with disabilities in their own parish,” said Rivas, “and invite them to participate fully.”
Nominees are solicited from the 127 parishes within the Toledo Diocese. According to Rivas, if there are more than six nominees the Equal Access Ministries Advisory Council helps her to select the honorees. The number of those given the award varies each year, but no more than six awards are handed out.
Rivas was most struck by Cygan’s humility and unassuming nature. “Don was very humbled by this honor,” she said. “He really wanted to accept it on behalf of his late wife, Shirley, but Don has been very active himself in many ministries at St. Rose Church and school. He is one of the quiet, faithful workers who doesn’t seek recognition, but is a model to many.”
Joyce Stombaugh, administrative assistant to the Rev. David Ross at St. Rose Catholic Church is the one who suggested nominating Cygan.
“Basically, I said to Father Ross, ‘I have a person we should nominate this year — Don Cygan,’” said Stombaugh. “Father Ross said, ‘Great choice.’”
Stombaugh added, “I nominated Don because he shows his faith on a daily basis by supporting his church and his fellow parishioners. You seldom hear the word ‘no’ from Don. If he can do it, he will.”
The awards were handed out at St. Ann Parish in Fremont on March 2 during the 9:30 a.m. Open Door Liturgy. Each recipient received an engraved wooden plaque that included his or her name, the date and the name of the award.
Unfortunately, Cygan was hospitalized on the same date as the ceremony and could not attend. Instead, his plaque was mailed to St. Rose Catholic Church where Ross presented it to him at the end of Sunday morning Mass on March 23.
“I remember it was the 23rd; he went up with his daughter,” said Stombaugh, “Then, Don worked with me afterwards on a project. I thought that was so fitting since that was what he was getting the award for to begin with.”
“I knew it was coming,” said Cygan. “I’m not very comfortable in front of people, but during Mass he called me up in front. All three of my kids were there.”
For Cygan, volunteering is something he enjoys and plans on continuing. “I think if people try it, with the type of people you meet, it’s well worth it,” said Cygan. “We have some great people at St. Rose.”
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