By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The falling snow, and the threat of much more to come, kept some folks at home that morning, but about 50 people braved the weather and the early hour to attend the FIRE Starters Breakfast at the Roasterie Bean Hanger Feb. 4. Children with special needs, and the opportunity for them to attend Catholic schools with their siblings and friends through the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education proved more compelling than staying home.
The FIRE Starters breakfast began in 2012 as a way to bring people together to share their stories, breakfast and a cup (or three or four) of coffee, and raise money for FIRE. The foundation, founded in 1996, provides financial grants to partner schools within the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese to help defray the costs of special education teachers, para-educators and resources. The grants enable schools to educate children with special needs along side their peers. Beginning in 1998 with three children attending two diocesan schools, today there are 67 children with special needs who receive direct support through FIRE who attend nine parish schools and one diocesan high school. The partner schools include Nativity of Mary in Independence, Our Lady of the Presentation in Lee’s Summit, St. Therese in Parkville, St. Elizabeth, St. Peter, St. Thomas More, the Strong City Schools — Holy Cross, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe —Visitation and Archbishop O’Hara High School, all in Kansas City. More than 400 children with mild learning disabilities receive classroom modifications and assistance. And their schoolmates, about 4,000 in all, learn acceptance, compassion and the value of every child, as everyone has unique gifts.
As the attendees enjoyed pastries, fruit and the Roasterie’s special FIRE blend of coffee, Matt Mitchell, owner/operator of five Culver’s restaurants, shared his story. Matt and Jeannie Mitchell have five kids, one of whom, Tony, was born with Down syndrome.
Matt recounted some of his journey as a parent of a child with special needs, a little poignant, a lot funny. In 2004, he and his wife, along with their children, opened their first Culver’s in Lee’s Summit. Tony has been a part of the work force since the beginning. Matt said his son has been teaching his coworkers and the customers about the value of inclusion in the workplace since day one.
“I can tell you,” Matt said, “people with Down syndrome have the best smiles!”
Including people with special needs in the workplace has all sorts of rewards, he added. “They create warm hearts in former Grinches. It’s amazing to watch employees with special needs grow in confidence and competence. And all sorts of people receive a great hello, every time.”
Employees with special needs work at each of Matt Mitchell’s Culver’s. Several students with special needs attending Archbishop O’Hara High School spend an hour or so each school afternoon either at Culver’s, Chick-fil-A or a Honda dealership in Lee’s Summit, gaining work experience, social skills, countless friends and a pay check.
Matt urged those present that if they took away just one idea from the breakfast, consider inclusion in the workplace. “Inclusion of children and adults with special needs at school, at work and at church makes lives better, richer, fuller; the entire school, parish or business benefits!”
Inclusive education doesn’t just happen, he said. It takes dedicated people, trained teachers, specialized equipment and lots of resources.
Coach Dave Rebori, Athletic Trainer and a para-professional, works with the O’Hara students with special needs, and provides transportation to get the students to Culver’s, Chick-fil-A and the Honda dealership. “We have a great time,” he said. “And so many people help them grow in confidence. William, the Pepsi man at Culver’s, shows them how to stock and stack the different Pepsi products.”
Joe Rose, whose wife Julie is the administrative assistant for FIRE, spoke of their daughter, who has Down syndrome. “FIRE provides an infrastructure and hope for families,” he said. “It gives families the ability to step back, be in the moment right now and appreciate it. “
FIRE Executive Director Lynn Hire said that she was most grateful to the people who attended the breakfast. About $14,000 was raised, which she said would be deposited into FIRE’s general fund to provide grants for partner schools. “We are the funders, not the educators,” she said. “Inclusive education looks a little different at St. Peter’s, St. Elizabeth’s, Visitation or Nativity.”
As Kevin Connor, a FIRE Board member said during the opening prayer, “Thank you, God, for your presence among us … (as we) praise and care for our young people who grow and learn more mysteriously than others. … Thank you for blessing us with the kids served by FIRE in our parish schools — a reminder of your many ways of beauty.”
Everyone has abilities and disabilities, he said. Children with special needs can teach other children the many faces of God.