FIREBall gala ignites generosity among its guests, exceeding goal

FIREBall guests peruse and chat over the silent auction items arrayed near windows overlooking Arrowhead Stadium. (Marty Denzer/Key Photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Almost a quarter of a century ago, six families found they shared the same dream — that their children with special needs could attend their parish grade school with their siblings and friends. Through hard work and advocacy, the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (F.I.R.E.) was established and in 1996, three children with special needs were enrolled at Visitation and St. Peter’s schools. They were followed by other children and other schools became partners with the foundation, which raised money to help with salaries for para-professionals and special education teachers to support and instruct students with special needs, purchase equipment and technology to empower and aid students in learning and offer professional development and training to educators enabling them to address their students’ unique needs and help them succeed.

Today, 12 Catholic grade schools, St. Elizabeth; St. Peter’s; St. Therese; St. Regis Academy; St. Patrick; Visitation, Our Lady of Hope; Holy Cross; Nativity of Mary; Our Lady of the Presentation; St. Thomas More; Borromeo Academy and two high schools, St. Pius X and St. Michael the Archangel, partner with FIRE Foundation, which continues to raise funds to continue helping schools create environments of learning where students with special needs learn and thrive alongside their typically developing peers. Since 1998-99, FIRE has granted $5 million to the partner schools to support inclusive education and is investing $550,000 during the 2019/2020 school year to continue that support.

How do they do all they do? There are several annual fundraisers, including a golf tournament, a purse sale and, the annual FIREBall gala dinner and auction.

FIREBall started life as BONFire, an annual Western flavored event, with a mechanical bull, barbecue and silent and live auctions followed by music and dancing held at various sites. The 2019 event — iNSPiRED — was held Oct. 12 at Arrowhead Stadium’s North Club. Guests in “classy cocktail dress” roamed the venue, checking out the silent auction items arrayed on tables near windows overlooking the football field, greeting friends and enjoying snacks and beverages. Many guests sported red dresses, ties or jackets and one gentleman was garbed in a suit decorated with flames.

Several hundred FIRE families, friends and fans celebrated 23 years of inclusive Catholic education at FIREBall. As the dinner began, Father Charles Rowe, KCSJ diocesan Vicar General for Pastoral Affairs, Invoked God in prayer before the meal.

“All-powerful, ever merciful God
Through the Apostle you instructed us
That you have chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and the lowly and despised of the world,
to reduce to nothing those who are something
so that mortal flesh might not boast before you.
In the precious gift of children, you provide constant reminder
of the vulnerability of your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ,
who became the least among us on the gibbet of the cross.
Your Son taught us that in receiving the little ones, we receive him
And, ultimately, we welcome you;
That to enter your kingdom, we must become as little ones ourselves.
Source of all light, illumine our eyes to see the face of your Son reflected in their countenances.
Font of all love, enflame our hearts to welcome Christ who dwells within them.
In seeing them, we encounter your Son.
In teaching them, we are formed by your Spirit.
In embracing them, we are enveloped in your love.
Bless our efforts to foster the formation of these precious children
That the beauty of your holiness may enlighten our Church.“

The honorary chairs, Darren and Shannon Prenger, expressed their appreciation for FIRE in remarks as the evening’s program began. Their “son is thriving in the first grade at St. Therese School,” Prenger said. Alongside students needing direct support from trained staff in the 14 schools, more than 600 students receive educational assistance and 5,256 students overall see their classmates “through the lens of God’s love,” he said.

Every year FIRE Foundation presents the Flame Award to the educator, advocate and volunteer of the year, those who keep FIRE burning. Teresa Medina of St. Elizabeth School was awarded the Educator of the Year award; Kristin DeMarea accepted the Advocate of the Year award on behalf of the Cathrin V. Merrill Foundation, which since 2011 has funded grants supporting the schools’ mission and Rachel Twenter received Volunteer of the Year award.

Since 2016, six FIRE affiliates have been established as the desire to have parish schools willing and able to open their doors and welcome students with special needs has flamed in other U.S. dioceses. FIRE Foundation of Northeast Iowa was established in 2016; FIRE Foundation of Central Illinois in 2018 and Fire foundations of New Hampshire, Dallas; FIRE Foundations of Northwest Indiana and Greater Chicago are newly established.

Well-known auctioneer Tana Guthrie opened the live auction and soon the guests were all-fired up to bid on dinners, original paintings, trips, parties, Kansas City Chiefs suite tickets, Notre Dame football trip and tickets. Along with the silent auction there were instabuys — candles, insulated wine tumblers, FIRE pennants and t-shirts, candles, the table centerpieces and inspirational quotes illustrated by students at the partner schools. When all was closed and counted, the preliminary total raised, which included underwriting, contributions, cash call (similar to fund-a-needs) and raffles, was $502,000.

FIRE executive director Lynn Hire said the goal was $440,000 and she “was overjoyed with the level of generosity displayed” at FIREBall. “Seeing people gathered on one night to support one organization that is important to so many … it was family, the FIRE family, coming together, showing how much inclusive Catholic education is valued in this diocese!”

To learn more about FIRE Foundation, call (816) 756-1858, ext 247, email FIRE@diocesekcsj.org or visit Firefoundation.org.

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Wednesday
November 20, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph