Fireball helps light the way for God’s children

Laden silent auction tables are highlighted by Arrowhead Stadium’s lights through the windows. Along with home decor, art work, school memorabilia, including sports, restaurant gift certificates, jewelry and more, tables on each end of the venue boasted KC Chiefs autographed helmets and jerseys. (Marty Denzer/Key photos)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Not so long ago, 22 years to be exact, children with special needs often were unable to attend their home parish schools with their siblings and friends mainly because the schools didn’t have the resources to welcome them, including para-educators.

In 1996, five families with children with special needs, founded the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education and raised the needed funds to enable three children to attend Visitation and St. Peter’s schools. Since its beginning, FIRE Foundation, as it is now known, has invested nearly $5 million in inclusive education in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Over the years more schools have become partner schools with FIRE. Thousands of children have benefitted from attending the schools, either as students needing extra support to learn and thrive or as their class and school mates. During the 2018/19 school year, 237 children with significant special needs are going to school with their peers at 14 schools.  Another 513 are benefitting from the support of trained para-educators. And 5,256 students at FIRE’s 12 elementary and two high schools are finding their lives enriched by the blessing of inclusion in learning.

Fireball, the annual benefit for FIRE Foundation, was held at Arrowhead Stadium’s North Club, Oct. 20.

Several hundred FIRE families, educators, volunteers, advocates and friends gathered to celebrate 22 years of inclusive Catholic education in this diocese. With local radio sports celebrity Steven St. John serving as the evening’s Emcee, and multiple tables displaying silent auction items, snacks including four flavors of popcorn, mini corn dogs with a variety of sauces, and walking tacos with Fritos or Doritos, two bars inside, prosecco pong and bean bag games and a bar at the entrance, Fireball began with a bang!

For the first hour guests meandered around the auction display tables, checking on current bids on certain items, bidding on others all on on their phones, and crossing fingers.

During a welcome by FIRE Board chair John Joyce and FIRE Foundation Executive Director Lynn Hire, Joyce announced that St. Regis Academy was the newest member of the FIRE family, and that in 2018/19 grants to partner schools totaling $480,000 were awarded to help pay para-educators, purchase equipment and other needs to enable children with special needs and those needing a little extra educational support and assistance to learn and thrive with their peers.

Grace before meals was led by Father Randolph Sly, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows parish and president of St. Michael the Archangel High School in Lee’s Summit, a FIRE partner school.

During a dinner of chicken and beef kabobs guests chattered and laughed, frequently checking their phones for the latest bids on items. Some arranged to participate in a wildfire wager, spending $100 in the hope of possibly winning one of the live auction items.

When St. John came back to the mike, it was time for the annual Flame awards, given to an educator, a volunteer and an advocate who keep the fire burning brightly. This year’s Educator of the Year was Kelley Burns, one of the para-educators at St. Peter’s School; the Volunteer of the Year was Sarah Smitka, owner of Pink Pear Design, and the Advocate of the Year was Mary Madden of Madden-McFarland Interiors and a member of FIRE’s Board of Directors.

FIRE is becoming known farther afield. Along with the first affiliate in Northern Iowa, a second affiliate, FIRE Foundation of Central Illinois, is now operating out of Blessed Sacrament School in Quincy, and, in 2019, a third Fire Affiliate school will open in the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire.

The foundation is also focusing efforts on endowing FIRE for the future.

A new Visitation school family truly embodies the spirit of FIRE. Tulsa, Okla., residents Dominic and Christy Spadafore’s daughter Vincenza was diagnosed with Pura Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental condition first described in medical literature in 2014. Only 250 adults and children have been diagnosed with this genetic disorder.

Vincenza Spadafore (photo courtesy Christy Spadafore)

Her parents wanted Cenza, as she is affectionately nicknamed, to be able to attend the same Catholic school as her older brothers, Rocco and Francis (Fran). The school the boys were enrolled in felt unable to welcome their sister, so they began researching and discovered FIRE. After reaching out to Hire and several schools, Dominic and Christy heard “Yes!” from both Vince Cascone at Visitation School and Lynn Hire. The Spadafores set out to realize their dream of Cenza and her brothers in the same Catholic school. They uprooted their family and moved to Kansas City two weeks before the start of this school year. When Cenza started at Visitation, her kindergarten classmates welcomed her.

She attends four half-days each week, going home with Christy while her classmates are at recess. Heading for the playground, as the kindergartners pass her wheelchair, they each bid her, ‘Goodbye Cenza!” “Bye Cenza!’ — her smile and giggle light up the room. She’s non-verbal but her giggle says it all. And Christy said it doesn’t happen just occasionally, “it happens every day!”

Cascone says Visitation’s students have benefitted from being a classmate or schoolmate of Cenza’s. “Everybody just loves her. She is the essence of what FIRE does and is. Her smile and that giggle show what inclusion can do for a child, no matter what their situation is.”

Christy Spadafore has nothing but praise for Visitation School’s students and faculty — their welcoming the three new students with equal friendliness, their kindness and especially their inclusion. “Rocco, Fran and Cenza have become one of the gang,” she said. “We couldn’t be happier. It’s a great school!”

And that welcome, kindness and inclusion is alive and well at all 14 FIRE partner schools, and 6,006 students and their families are glad of it.

To learn more about FIRE Foundation, call (816) 756-1858, ext 247, email or visit


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph