Catholic schools exist to assist parents in forming their children as disciples: young men and women who are growing in wisdom and understanding, and friendship with the Lord. But some families haven’t always had the option to choose a Catholic education for their children. Catholic schools have not always been able to enroll students with special needs. Parents of special needs children are sometimes forced to move their children to a public school or another school where they have the available resources for their children.
Eve Langston chose St. Mary Catholic school in Littleton for her oldest five children. When her youngest daughter, Anna, was born with Down syndrome, Eve wanted Anna to attend St. Mary too. Anna is three and a half years old and was born with Down Syndrome, which requires the school she attends to have the appropriate staff and resources to educate Anna well. Recognizing the need for Catholic schools to be places of inclusion for children with special needs, St. Mary school administration made the choice to find a way to have Anna attend the school. So, Eve started looking for funding to help the school be able to afford the supports needed for Anna.
“I knew in the Archdiocese of Denver, children with special needs have not historically or consistently been accommodated in our Catholic schools,” Langston told the Denver Catholic. “I know that from experience and from other family’s experience. I wanted to see what was happening around the country, so I started researching. To my shock, I actually found out that this is quite common in other parts of the country. That’s when I came across the FIRE Foundation. They are one of the oldest organizations that have been helping [special needs children].”
The FIRE Foundation was started in Kansas in 1996 by a group of parents who wanted their special needs children to be educated in their parish schools alongside their siblings and friends. The foundation has done a lot for the culture of inclusion of children with special needs in Catholic schools. Langston explained that the Kansas foundation has support from the Kansas Archdiocese and that they have raised over six million dollars and have been able to support 14 schools in Kansas over the past 25 years.
The FIRE Foundation features an affiliate program where other cities can use their resources and knowledge to start a FIRE Foundation in their own city. This is how Langston, along with other families who have children with special needs, started the affiliate foundation in Denver.
How exactly does the FIRE Foundation help? Primarily, they financially support Catholic schools to obtain the resources needed.
“Essentially, [the FIRE Foundation] funds four major categories for schools. Schools that want to be inclusive can apply for a grant from the FIRE Foundation,” Langston said. “The bulk of our funding will go towards helping to pay for the staff of the paraprofessionals or aids and special education teachers that are needed to assess these children and help them be successful in Catholic schools. We will also support professional development for teachers on best practices for inclusion and as learning aids that are needed or technology that’s needed to assist children.”
“We all need to do more to welcome children with disabilities into our Catholic schools. Children with special needs belong in our schools, and their parents deserve to be supported by the Church in the education of their children,” said Associate Superintendent for Academic Renewal, Abriana Chilelli. “Catholic education offers an education in the true human freedom that comes from knowing Jesus Christ deeply, and we want that formation for all kids in the archdiocese. We have such a dedicated team of educators teaching and leading in our schools, and inclusion is possible. The time is now for the Church in a special way to show the world the deep value of every human life. The FIRE Foundation will help make this possible for our schools.”
There are plans for a one-day conference next year about inclusion for educators in the Archdiocese of Denver focusing on how they can better assist those students with special needs.
The foundation is accepting donations through the Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado as well as online. As for volunteering, there will be a fundraising event next year where people can get more involved. There is a movement towards awareness of special education in Catholic schools that has started and soon every family will be able to be accommodated in their parish school. Langston wants to encourage everyone in the archdiocese to be optimistic that inclusion is possible and that the reward will outweigh the work.
“[Schools] just needs to know that this is something that is possible and it’s happening in other places,” Langston concluded. “It brings so much joy to the schools that are including children with special needs… I think whatever challenges may arise with the learning curve of our Catholic schools starting to accept us and move towards inclusion are worth it, given the benefits we’ll receive by having our children educated with their siblings and friends.”
For more information and other ways to get involved, visit firefoundationdenver.org.