By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The year was 1996, and six sets of parents dreamed a challenging dream. They wanted their children with special needs to attend their parish schools, just like their brothers and sisters and friends. They established the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, which raises money to fund grants to Catholic schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph which help pay the salaries of paraprofessionals and special educators to enable children with special needs to learn alongside their peers.
Despite setbacks, the parents held onto their dreams and, in 1998, three little boys entered kindergarten at St. Peter’s and Visitation schools just like their brothers, sisters and friends. Austin Dearth and Nick Costanzo thrived at St. Peter’s, as did Parker Levi at Visitation. And they enriched the lives of their classmates and teachers. F.I.R.E., rebranded itself in 2014 as FIRE Foundation, but its modus operandi, fund raising and advocacy, remains the same.
Other children and more schools followed Austin, Nick and Parker, and now, nearly 20 years later, 90 children who would likely be unable to attend their parish schools are able to because of FIRE; 650 students with moderate learning disabilities, who need a little extra help receive it from trained paraprofessionals, and more than 4,900 students in the 13 partner schools are impacted by knowing and learning alongside children with special needs.
Those first three boys graduated from Archbishop O’Hara High School in 2011.
Since its establishment, the FIRE Foundation, an independent 501(c)3 organization, has provided more than $2.2 million to partner schools, making it possible for the schools to hire special educators, paraprofessionals and purchase materials and technology to create successful learning opportunities for their students. Without grants from FIRE, many schools wouldn’t be able to welcome students with Down syndrome, developmental delays, Lowe’s Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Trisomy 9p and other conditions. The spirit of inclusion touches the lives and hearts of all students in the partner schools as well as their families, educators and the entire faith community.
FIRE Foundation’s major fundraising event is FIRE Ball, an annual gala featuring silent and live auctions, food and entertainment which supports FIRE’s mission of inclusion. Held for the past several years at Starlight Theater, it definitely isn’t the same old same old.
This year, the evening of Oct. 17 began with a Mass at St. Peter’s Church, and children with special needs, some grown, some younger, helped serve Mass, do a reading, offer the prayers of the faithful, usher and pass the collection baskets.
Celebrant Father Steve Cook, pastor of St. Peter’s and St. Therese Little Flower parishes, highlighted service to others in his homily. Alluding to the Gospel reading, Mark 10:35-45, (in which James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish [me] to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”), Father Cook said, “We welcome everyone to our table.” He continued, reminding the congregation that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and so should they. “At St. Peter’s, service to others is expected of all, adults and children.
“With FIRE, all our children are expected to drink from the cup,” he said, “to be people of service. FIRE gives all students the opportunity to serve one another.”
FIRE founding parent Mary Anne Hammond spoke to the congregation following Mass, recalling FIRE’s beginnings, the fears and doubts of the parents. She quoted from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 6:9, “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.”
She highlighted some of the milestones of past years, students graduating from grade school and going on to high school at Archbishop O’Hara and St. Pius X, getting jobs or volunteering after graduating from high school and becoming men and women.
“Inclusion has been a blessing predictably and unpredictably,” she said. Predictably in the education and impact it has had on all the students in the partner schools. Unpredictably in that “the gifts of inclusion have prompted many former classmates of children with special needs to become special education teachers and paraprofessionals” equipped to help students with special needs in years to come. And all because the founding parents did not give up on their dreams for their children.
About 500 people gathered at Starlight Theatre after the Mass to celebrate FIRE, the children benefitting from FIRE’s fundraising and advocacy and to raise funds to continue the benefits and advocacy. Meandering around the tables filled with silent auction items, enjoying cocktails and chatting with friends old and new, the crowd spent time bidding on items. Then through the Art Alley, lined with original art work by regional artists and by students at 10 of the partner schools, to the main event room, where dinner was served. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who has served since April as the apostolic administrator of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, gave the official welcome and led the prayer before meals. As guests ate, they were treated to the performance art of Mike Debus, who danced and painted a portrait of Kansas City Royals star Eric Hosmer, which was later bid on during the live auction.
The Flame Award, given annually to someone who has contributed time and talent to FIRE, went this year to the six founding sets of parents — Carney and Maura Nulton, Bob and Patti Dearth, Dan and Mary Anne Hammond, Tracey and Pete Costanzo, Matt and Katie Levi and Michele and Jeff Hughes. Lynn Hire, executive director of FIRE Foundation, said the award was given to them because “We have arrived at a place in our two-decade history where never a day goes by without our feeling gratitude for our founders. As we expand the reach of our mission and its growth, we are thankful for their determination and strength. They truly never gave up.”
FIRE is recognized as model of success for schools from all over the country, she said. It’s a model that people are interested in replicating.
From a modest beginning with two schools, Visitation and St. Peter’s, the reach of FIRE’s mission has expanded to include St. Elizabeth, Our Lady of the Presentation (Lee’s Summit), St. Therese (Parkville), Nativity of Mary (Independence), St. Thomas More, Our Lady of Angels, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Holy Cross and St. Charles Borromeo grade schools and Archbishop O’Hara and St. Pius X high schools.
FIRE Board president Peggy Van Dyke praised the founding parents for their dream of inclusion, their creativity, determination and hard work, all while raising 24 kids between them. The six original children served by FIRE all attended Archbishop O’Hara High School.
She said that the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is one of the few places in the country funding inclusive education the way FIRE Foundation does, thanks to its founders.
Currently in 13 elementary and high schools, FIRE is now on track to reach out to more schools in the diocese by 2018, she said. One of the underlying benefits of FIRE is seeing young people who experienced the impact of inclusive education themselves want that for their own children down the road. And from those students come the para professionals and special education teachers of tomorrow, Van Dyke added.
For more information about FIRE Foundation visit www.firefoundation.org.