By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — John Tyler has a couple of homemade videos on his school-issued iPad.
One of them shows Brett Hughes leading the entire student body of Archbishop O’Hara High School in a football cheer. The crescendo of noise grows as Hughes slowly raises both arms above his head, then suddenly ends as he drops them back down to side.
The second video shows Hughes’ triumphant return to O’Hara following life-saving brain surgery. He wasn’t supposed to come back until the Christmas break, but Hughes was doing so well, he couldn’t be stopped from going to school.
Hughes bolts into the commons area, the entire O’Hara student body erupting in cheers and tears, as he high-fives everyone within reach, then does a victorious fist pump.
Every high school, even one as egalitarian and clique-free as Archbishop O’Hara High School, has its Big Man On Campus.
Usually, it’s a guy like John Tyler — athlete, scholar, handsome, the kind of student for whom the words “Most Likely to Succeed” used to appear underneath his senior class picture in the school yearbook.
But at Archbishop O’Hara this year, the Big Man On Campus — the one guy everyone looks up to and wants to be friends with — is Brett Hughes.
Oh yeah. One other thing.
Brett Hughes has Down syndrome, as if that matters. At Archbishop O’Hara High School it really doesn’t.
In a public school system, Brett would be known as a “special education” student. He would probably be “mainstreamed” into a regular high school, but would spend the vast majority of his time away from the rest of the students in a special classroom for “special education” students.
At Archbishop O’Hara, Brett is officially enrolled in the “options” programs, but he attends the same classes as other students and enjoys the same high school activities including sports, with “peer mentors” who help him navigate the hallways and help him with this classwork. And he, and other “options” students will one day earn the same high school diploma as their classmates.
Is he popular? Just ask Mikaela Mitchell, who helps him get to the art class they both have.
“Sometimes, it’s really hard to get there on time,” Mitchell said. “Everybody in the hall wants to stop us and say, ‘Hi, Brett. How you doing?’ and give him a high-five.”
Brett’s parents, Jeff and Michele Hughes, knew that their son would thrive in Catholic school. That’s why they were on the ground floor with other parents when they helped bring the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (FIRE) to elementary schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
But they had no idea that the schools themselves, and the students in them, would also grow in unexpected and magnificent ways because students like Brett were in them.
“He is a gift,” Michele said. “He has a way to make it easy to love him.”
But still, even a mother couldn’t expect the outpouring of love that the entire Archbishop O’Hara student body showed to her son as he left for California to receive surgery for Moyamoya disease, a condition that attacks the blood vessels feeding the brain that, if not diagnosed and treated by surgery in time, is always fatal.
“Sometimes,” she said. “It’s the kids who teach the adults.”
Mitchell was the person who alerted school officials last May, when Brett suddenly fell to the ground holding his head.
“They called me and I ran and got him right away,” Michele said. “If they would have blown that off, who knows?”
But then again, that wasn’t that big of a surprise to either Michele or Jeff Hughes. They are both Archbishop O’Hara High School graduates, and knew to what kind of school they were sending all their children, including Brett.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “You feel God’s presence in everyone at O’Hara.”
A battery of doctors and months of tests followed that revealed severe blockage of key cranial blood vessels, then surgery was scheduled for Nov. 1 — All Saints’ Day — at the world’s leading center for Moyamoya neurosurgery and by the world’s best Moyamoya neurosurgeon, Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., and Dr. Gary Steinberg.
Knowing that the surgery was going to be touch-and-go, the student body of Archbishop O’Hara High School shed their tears then got busy.
Led by options program peer mentors, including John Tyler, Mikaela Mitchell, Eero Johnson, Chase Koob and Bridget O’Shaughnessy as well as options program teachers Steve and Nancy McCoy, the students of O’Hara bombarded heaven with prayers.
Then they turned to the entire Hughes family.
Tyler knew exactly what Brock Hughes, Brett’s brother, was going through. Two years earlier, Tyler’s sister Emily underwent neurosurgery for another condition, and he knew what the support of other students meant to him then.
“I told Brock that you just got to pray for God’s will, whatever the outcome would be,” he said.
Knowing the family was facing expenses that insurance wouldn’t cover, Tyler and Mitchell designed “Brett’s Buddies” T-shirts with an added note: “O’Hara Family” on the back. The peer mentors raised $1,600 through the shirt sales alone, and presented that check to the Hughes family on Christmas Eve.
Sure their lives were busy enough, what with school, homework, and extra-curricular activities. But working with the students in the “options” program no longer seems like work to the peer mentors, but something they have to do.
And what they get, all the peer mentors will say, is far more than what they give, and what they learn is far more than what they help teach.
“I stopped looking at this as a negative thing a long time ago,” Bridgett O’Shaughnessy said. “He (Brett) just has fun all the time. You don’t worry about the small stuff because he doesn’t.”
“There is no way to describe it,” Chase Koob said. “At first it was difficult, then I got to know these students. I didn’t know I could get so attached to them.”
“Not every day is perfect,” O’Shaughnessy added. “But every perfect day makes all the imperfect ones worth it.”
The student peer mentors aren’t the only ones whom the “options” students like Brett Hughes inspires.
Steve and Nancy McCoy spent more than three decades in “special education” in public school systems before they accepted a shared position at O’Hara this fall under a FIRE grant.
Steve admits that he was feeling some burn-out, and not a little bit of it.
“Now, I get out of bed every day and I can’t wait to get to work,” he said. “I love being here every single day. I do cartwheels every day.”
Nancy McCoy said it didn’t take long for either one of them to realize they were in a very special place, serving some very special students including the peer mentors, in a place where students are encouraged to pray and be free to express their love.
“These mentors and these students are the heartbeat of this school,” she said. “They are the secret weapon.”
One of those perfect days at Archbishop O’Hara happened shortly before the semester break, when Brett Hughes, just weeks after his surgery, could wait no longer. He had to come back.
Still, the students at O’Hara, assembled in the commons area that morning with a banner that Mikaela Mitchell had made to welcome him home, didn’t quite know what to expect. After all, their buddy just had brain surgery. Would he be the same?
Burly Eero Johnson, a football and wrestling star, admitted the relief and joy he felt when Brett did his fist-pump in front of the cheering student body.
“That’s his signature move,” Johnson said. “We didn’t know if he would ever be back. But he was the same old Brett.”
And to alumni Jeff and Michele Hughes, it was also the same old Archbishop O’Hara High School.
Brett isn’t out of the woods yet, and will have to undergo months more of periodic tests and checkups to keep the disease in check.
But Michele said she knows that an entire high school has the backs of an entire family.
“It’s just indescribable to be told that your son has a rare brain disease, how helpless you feel,” she said.
“But nobody at O’Hara would let us feel that way,” she said. “We knew we were not alone. Everybody was praying for us.” o
This year, the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education has provided financial support that allows 52 students with different abilities to attend Catholic schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, including Archbishop O’Hara High School, as well as Special Education support for another 378 students. To learn more, visit the Web site at www.fire-program.org. Donations by check can be made out to and mailed to: F.I.R.E, 20 W. 9th St., Kansas City, MO 64105.