By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — He stood near the stairs to the Midland Theater’s second floor holding high the letter “W.” KayCee, the Royals’ Hall of Famer “W guy,” the guy who posts the letter on the stadium wall every time the team wins, was one of the iconic Kansas City figures showcased at FIREBall, the annual event benefitting FIRE Foundation. This year, the event on Nov. 5 was held at the historic Midland Theater downtown, highlighting “all things Kansas City.” Represented by actors were historical figures including Ernest Hemingway, Kate Spade, Tom Pendergast, Count Basie and Harry Truman, with “W,” playing himself. Guests flocked to have pictures taken with them.
FIREBall, formerly BonFIRE, is the gala fundraiser for FIRE Foundation, which through advocacy and grants to partner schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph helps provide inclusive education to enable children with specials needs attend Catholic schools with their siblings and friends. FIRE Executive Director Lynn Hire said that since its founding in 1996, FIRE has granted more than $3.5 million to partner schools to support inclusive Catholic education.
Roaming the theater’s 1920s-era halls and lobbies, guests browsed the laden silent auction tables and the art gallery, featuring original artwork by students in partner schools, as well as professional pieces. When dinner was announced, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. led the grace before meals.
“Living and true God,” he prayed, “embrace all our children, regardless of their abilities, as they grow in faith, knowledge and friendship.”
As gala goers lined up at the buffets, the Vine Street Rumble played music that Kansas Citians of the 1930s and 40s would have listened to, Count Basie and other Big Band sounds.
While the guests finished eating and settled back to listen to the program, Emcee Toby Cook appeared on the stage. A video featuring several students saluting their best friends showed that students can teach each other about friendship, hope and collaboration.
The Flame Award, given each year to a person or people who give of their time and talent to FIRE was presented to Steve and Nancy McCoy, co-teachers in Archbishop O’Hara High School’s Option’s Program. Since 2012, they have taught the Options class. Their teaching styles and philosophies are similar, but each has unique strengths and can share different strategies that may work with different content areas and or students to obtain optimal learning experiences.
A second Flame Award was presented to Peggy Van Dyke, President of FIRE’s Board of Directors, who joined it in 2009. She was Advocate of the Year.
Cook introduced FIRE Executive Director Lynn Hire, who had a big announcement.
“Pope Francis made a statement in December of last year that continues to echo loudly and clearly in the hearts and minds of Catholics around the world,” she said. “He said ‘An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts.’
“Through a collaborative partnership, that’s exactly what is happening here in the Midwest. Soon, more children with special needs with have the opportunity to attend Catholic schools.”
She announced that FIRE has a new partnership, an affiliate relationship with a recently launched organization operating in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa.
Erin and Bruce Schmitz were sitting quietly at a rear table when the announcement was made. The couple had traveled from their home near Waterloo, Iowa, to attend FIREBall. Erin and her mother-in-law, Teresa Schmitz, are co-founders of the FIRE Foundation of Northeast Iowa, which hopes to eventually embrace the 52 schools in the Archdiocese’s 30 counties. Many of those schools are in three metropolitan areas, Erin said — Dubuque, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids.
It all started in 2014. The youngest of Erin and Bruce’s three children was born in Dec. 2013, and diagnosed with Down Syndrome. As Jacob grew, and her two older boys became strongly attached to him, she began to wonder where he could attend school. “I did a lot of online research,” she said in a phone interview several days later, “and learned about the Board of Inclusion and the Catholic schools providing inclusive education to kids with special needs across the country. FIRE stood out — its experience, its model, and we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I contacted Fire Foundation directly.”
As it gets started, FIRE of Northeast Iowa aims to educate school communities about inclusive learning and its benefits and foster a culture of compassion and acceptance.
“Initially,” Erin said, “our goal is to help our archdiocesan school and parish communities understand the benefits of welcoming students with special needs. In partnership with the Archdiocesan leadership, we plan to focus on making resources available that empower students and educators to succeed. We’re working to plan professional development opportunities relative to inclusive education’s best practices and will expand our efforts moving forward, just as FIRE in Kansas City has done.”
Erin and Teresa Schmitz have dedicated FIRE Foundation of Northeast Iowa to Earl and Agnes Youngblut, who valued their faith and Catholic education. In 1972, Earl started a farm chemical business which in 2004 was purchased by their oldest child, Teresa, her husband and seven children.
Teresa said her family believes in the potential of every child and the value of Catholic education. “Our 17th grandchild has Down Syndrome. His birth has opened our eyes and our hearts in a whole new way to God’s love.”
Her son, Bruce, and daughter-in-law, Erin, were concerned with future education and Teresa was researching also when an opportunity to sell the business came earlier this year. The entire family knew they wanted to do something good with the proceeds of the sale to thank God for all he had given them. They are all co-founders, but Erin and Teresa are in charge.
“We are committed to growing this organization,” Teresa said. “We believe FIRE of Northeast Iowa will ultimately open the doors of Catholic schools for countless children who learn differently than their peers. From the beginning, the Holy Spirit has inspired and led our family on this wonderful journey.”
Erin agreed. “We were meant to start this.”
FIRE Ball thrilled her. The live auction, which boasted trips to Ireland among others, football and soccer game tickets and suites and dinners, and art pieces, had a surprise visit from Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy. Along with his donation of the Danny Duffy Experience: talking with and teaching them to pitch, he also threw in another item, Pizza with Danny Duffy for 10 kids.
The single highest bid was on A City United, an acrylic-on-canvas painting by local artist Katheryn Krouse. The piece captures the powerful sense of unity and joy that drew Kansas Citians together during the 2015 World Series. Katheryn has been an artist since she was a young girl; frequently featured in First Friday gallery exhibits and other shows. Her art is influenced by her observation of urban landscapes. Krouse’s style of artistic expression continues to evolve and mature, but was dramatically affected by a 2010 diagnosis of Stargardt’s disease, the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration. Her vison has been affected as well as her ability to process light, affecting her perception of visual contrasts. The winning bid was $5,000.
FIRE Ball 2016 grossed $325,000, the largest amount grossed from the gala to date.
FIRE Foundation and FIRE of Northeast Iowa encourage parishes and schools to participate in the National Days of Prayer for Inclusion, during all Masses the weekend of Dec. 3-4.
FIRE Foundation, another thing we love about Kansas City and now Northeast Iowa.
Want to learn more? Visit FIRE Foundation www.firefoundation.org or www.firefoundationnortheastiowa.org.