By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The annual BonFIRE fundraiser Oct. 5 for the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (F.I.R.E.) at the Weston Crown Center Hotel was a first, a last and the 11th. It was the last event for Maura Nulton as Executive Director and the first for her successor, Lynn Hire. And, the 11th BonFIRE was a big success, raising about $145,000 to help with the costs of Para educators and Special Education resource teachers, enabling parish schools to educate children with special needs side by side with their brothers, sisters and friends.
That was the notion that started it all, back in 1996. Five families with children with special needs wanted their kids to attend St. Peter’s and Visitation schools with their siblings. Their research into programs for kids with special needs, special education and schools in other cities that practiced inclusion sparked an idea that took root and sprouted. In 1997, Maura and Carnie Nulton, and four other couples lit the match that started F.I.R.E. The following year, Austin Dearth and Nicholas Costanza started kindergarten at St. Peter’s and Parker Levi started kindergarten at Visitation.
Since then, children with special needs — physical, developmental, learning disabilities and autism — have been able to attend parish schools, graduate with their peers, and attend Archbishop O’Hara High School, again graduating with their class. And their peers and thousands of other students have also benefitted from knowing the kids with special needs, and perhaps getting extra help from the resource teachers.
It’s been 17 years since Maura Nulton began asking questions of therapists, priests, teachers and school administrators in an effort to enable her fifth child, Charlie, who was born with Down Syndrome, to go to school with her four other children. F.I.R.E. has grown and matured alongside the kids it works for.
Mary Anne Hammond, one of the founding parents, paid tribute to Nulton and her family at BonFIRE. She recalled an evening last year when she and Nulton stood together in the Nulton’s living room, taking pictures of a daughter and a son who were going to a dance together. “The friendship … forged (thanks to F.I.R.E.) so many years ago stayed solid. It has been defining for both of them,” she said. “This was a proud F.I.R.E moment.”
Hammond, whose daughter Kailey attended St. Peter’s in the early days of F.I.R.E., said that in the months following that evening, she thought of “the effort spearheaded by Maura over these past 16 years had changed so many lives, literally thousands. The children with special needs who have been able to go to school alongside their siblings and friends are an integral part of every aspect of our schools and parish life, and have provided something life changing for all of us. So beyond the tens of thousands of hours you have put in to making F.I.R.E. what it is today, on behalf of all the parents who have kinder, more compassionate, more patient children because of the school experience that has been in part due to F.I.R.E., due to you, we thank you for what you have done …”
The foundation’s first year of funding participating schools saw it award a total of $69, 631 for salaries, materials and continuing education costs for one Special Education teacher and three paraprofessionals at two schools.
For the 2013-14 school year, education and salary grants were awarded to St. Peter’s, Visitation, St. Elizabeth, St. Therese north, St. Thomas More and Nativity of Mary parish schools, Archbishop O’Hara High School and the three Strong City schools, Our Lady of Angels, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Cross. A grant was also awarded to help with the salary of a Diocesan Special Education Coordinator. Total education grants amounted to $190,000.
The Nultons, and their children, Mary Beth, Sally, Will, Meg, Charlie, Sam and Michael, have been involved with F.I.R.E. every step of the way. Now Maura Nulton has stepped down and away to concentrate on her family and on Charlie’s entry into adulthood.
“The transition from F.I.R.E to home is bittersweet,” she said, “but I’m ready. I love the mission of F.I.R.E. I’ve dedicated time, a lot of emotion and effort to benefit Charlie and the other kiddos. Charlie is 17; he’ll soon be an adult. It’s time for Lynn to take charge.”
Lynn Hire served as a marketing consultant for 13 years, and owner of her firm. “I’m cause oriented,” she said. “I can’t sell widgets. I can give 150 percent when I’m promoting a mission or initiative that I believe in heart and soul.” Hire has worked in the marketing and communications office at Donnelly College, Kansas City, Kan., for several years and will continue in that position part time.
Hire said F.I.RE.’s mission — to provide opportunities to bring forth God’s mission for children with special needs — is one she believes in. “I want to see F.I.R.E. grow,” she said, “and I would consider replicating it in other dioceses. Right now it’s in Archbishop O’Hara High School and 10 elementary schools, including the three Strong City Schools. With Holy Cross, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe schools, we’re starting out small — helping to provide resources for teachers and families with children with special needs. We hope to do more in the future.”
Hire is pleased that her “cumulative collection of skills and experience make sense” for the F.I.R.E. position — marketing and communications, an area of F.I.R.E. which she hopes to see grow; and experience in fundraising for church and philanthropic endeavors.
“I leave with a grateful heart,” Nulton said. “I’m excited about Charlie’s journey into adult life, and a little overwhelmed. I want to see Charlie working, enjoying a full, structured life. He hopes someday to marry. That would be wonderful!”
Nulton, the last founding parent to step out of F.I.R.E.’s leadership, said, “F.I.R.E. needs new thoughts, new leadership. We’re really turning the corner. I will continue to serve as a board member and a volunteer, but I pass the torch of leadership on to Lynn.”
Lynn said, “I am humbled to be in this position and look forward to working with the people of this diocese.”
Both women feel gratitude for “the goodness of people. They hear our story and give generously and consistently, whether it’s $25 or $25,000. They know the benefits of inclusive education. The Lord works first hand in the people who give and volunteer.”
To learn more about F.I.R.E. or to volunteer, contact Lynn Hire, Executive Director, firstname.lastname@example.org