New initiative will help Catholic schools start special needs inclusion programs
Author: Dan Meloy
Republished with permission from Detroit Catholic
Catholic Foundation’s St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund inspired by success of St. Mary Catholic Central in Monroe
STERLING HEIGHTS — The Catholic Foundation of Michigan is looking to raise between $2 million and $5 million in seed money for a granting foundation that will help Catholic schools be more inclusive for students with special needs.
The foundation launched the St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund, which will award $50,000 grants to schools to acquire the resources and know-how needed to incorporate students with special needs into the general school environment.
The fund’s purpose is to empower Catholic schools across the state to better accommodate students with special needs so they, too, can experience a Catholic learning environment, said Paul Mersino of the Catholic Foundation of Michigan’s St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund board.
“What we aim to do is spread special education in Catholic schools,” Mersino told Detroit Catholic. “Those children who are the most vulnerable and the most in need, we believe should have the same opportunities as all our students and all our children. This organization seeks to raise awareness and raise funds to help Catholic schools who wish to expand into special education if they wish to do so.”
The fund would offer two, $50,000 grants per year, which two Catholic schools could apply toward starting a special needs education program in their schools. Schools could reapply for the grant for a second year, with the idea being the program can become self-sustaining and meet the specific needs of the school and students.
“Catholic schools and most private schools are strapped for cash, trying to do the most they can with the resources they have with the students they have,” said Mersino, whose youngest son, Jacob, 4, has Down syndrome. “What we seek to do is take away their two biggest needs. One, the resources and the know-how on how to build an inclusive program, and two, raising the funds to operate the program.”
The St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund takes its cue from Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central’s St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program, which started in 2018 when Steve and Aimee Goda wanted their son, Jacob, to follow in the footsteps of his brother and sister and go to St. Mary Catholic Central.
The Goda family attended a private event benefiting the St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund on July 19 at Penna’s of Sterling in Sterling Heights, where they and Sean Jorgensen, president of St. Mary Catholic Central, shared how inclusive education has helped the Goda family and the St. Mary Catholic Central community.
“If you ever get a chance to meet Jacob, in a minute and a half you will begin to understand what an incredible impact he has been on our community at St. Mary Catholic Central in Monroe,” Jorgensen said. “One thing we were told very early on (when making the program) that we couldn’t wrap our minds around is whatever we would do for Jacob and other students in our inclusion program, they have given back to us a hundredfold.
“Jacob’s presence in our community transformed the culture in our school, making us a more caring, compassionate, engaged community that has reached into every corner of what it means to be a Catholic school,” Jorgensen added.
Jacob is now a freshman at the University of Toledo, playing intermural basketball, and accompanied St. Mary Catholic Central students to the University of Notre Dame for a training seminar on what it takes to be a student-mentor for St. Mary Catholic Central’s inclusion program.
Jorgensen said St. Mary Catholic Central’s inclusion program has expanded to nine students this year, among the school’s 330-student enrollment.
“When we began this journey, it was about learning to say ‘yes’ — say ‘yes’ and take a risk,” Jorgensen said. “I remember saying, ‘We’re not sure how this is going to work,’ when we had the conversation with Steve and Aimee on what Jacob needs, what they were looking for and what we needed to understand.”
Catholic Foundation of Michigan leaders looked to St. Mary Catholic Central’s program when forming the St. Margaret of Castello Granting Fund, along with programs at St. William School in Walled Lake and Divine Child in Dearborn. The committee also reached out to John Paul II High School in Nashville, Tenn., Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, Calif., and Bishop O’Connell in Arlington, Va., for advice on how to develop an inclusion program.
Going around the country, the committee found that inclusion programs in Catholic schools are definitely the exception and not the norm, said Joe Viviano, a board member who emceed the July 19 event.
“We’re here to promote special education inclusion in the Catholic school system,” said Viviano, who was there with his daughter, Izzy, 15, who has autism spectrum disorder. “More often than not, families are either turned away from our schools, or like what happened in my family, one of the kids had to go off to public school alone, the most vulnerable one, and the others attended Catholic school.”
Viviano said his experience and the experience of other families is not meant to be an indictment of Catholic schools, but a wakeup call to the entire Catholic community to empower Catholic schools to better serve students with special needs.
“We are here tonight so we can lift our schools, encourage them, help them. The ones who have the courage to take on this opportunity, we’re here to help them,” Viviano said. “We know what we’re asking them to do is not easy. If it was easy, it already would have been done.
Viviano acknowledged that “serious obstacles” exist that might prevent a Catholic school from embarking on such a journey.
“The biggest one obviously is financial resources, but there is also a fear of the unknown, fear of disrupting the other kids and their programs, fear of burning out our teachers,” Viviano said. “A lot of our teachers in
our schools are taking less money, but are there because they believe in the mission. This charity exists to knock down those obstacles.”
The Catholic Foundation of Michigan had already collected $800,000 before the July 19 event. Angela Moloney, president and CEO of the Catholic Foundation of Michigan, challenged the 150 attendees to get the fund up to $1 million before the night ended.
“Imagine what we can do when we come together on this,” Moloney said. “Imagine how frustrating it is — and many of you know — to be that parent who is struggling. I have nieces and nephews who have autism, and I see my siblings struggling, and we don’t have to do it alone. When we come together as a community, look at what we get to do.”
Moloney encouraged donors to speak with Jorgensen and Goda family about what special education inclusion means to them and means to a Christ-centered school.
“When we met with the Goda family this spring, they told me the biggest change isn’t in the kids; it’s about the community looking different,” Moloney said. “I know St. Mary Catholic Central in Monroe has changed, and the community has shifted. Imagine if our entire Catholic community was just as welcoming.”
Whether you are a volunteer, educator, parent, or donor, discover how you can contribute and learn more by visiting the St. Margaret of Castello website today. Explore the stories of resilience, learn about our initiatives, and discover the meaningful ways in which you can contribute to this transformative cause. Together, we can build a more inclusive future for all children.