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Way back in 1999, our son Patrick was born with Down Syndrome and a congenital heart defect that would require open heart surgery at just nine weeks old. Patrick had an older brother named Jack who was six and an older sister named Mary Kate who was four. Jack was in our local Catholic school and Mary Kate was set to attend kindergarten within the year.

Believe it or not, one of my deepest sorrows in those very early days was not that Patrick would have Down Syndrome or need to endure open heart surgery. It was the almost instant feeling of separateness — the feeling that Patrick would not be welcomed at his brother and sister’s school.

So, I got online and found the Network of Inclusive Catholic Educators (their acronym N.I.C.E. wins all the awards!) and realized that students with developmental disabilities were being included in their local Catholic schools.

This was thrilling!!

Seeing this, I knew that it was possible for Patrick to attend our Catholic school. I also felt confident in asking for this opportunity since I had taught a student with Down Syndrome fully included in a 5th grade classroom in a local public school. I knew what I was asking as an educator and now this was not only an educational question but a moral question as well.

“You can have the other words — chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.”
Mary Oliver
siblings walking to school together
How could one child be separated from his siblings, his parish community, his faith? How could full inclusion not be paramount?

And so, in 2005, with the blessing of our parish priest, Father Dan Looney and our school principal, Mary Kay Bolz, Patrick began kindergarten at St. James School in Davis, California. He was the first student in his school and the first in the diocese of Sacramento with Down Syndrome to be fully included.

I truly cannot tell you the profound feeling of acceptance and gratitude I held as Patrick walked down the street with Jack and Mary Kate to begin his schooling.

It felt exactly, cosmically, perfectly right.

And that began my earnest desire for every child with Down Syndrome who was Catholic to have the same opportunity to attend their parish school with his/her siblings.

As God does, he provided many people to guide the way and encourage me. I crossed paths with other educators, other families, university professors, administrators, and priests who believed in this moral obligation too.

Believe in Christ quote

And then in 2014, as Patrick was set to graduate 8th grade from our school, I had the joy and opportunity to meet with even more people who were hoping for and working for inclusive classrooms in Catholic schools. It became apparent that no special Catholic national organization was going to take this on. We all met at Manhattan Beach at American Martyrs School and had a frank discussion over lunch about the barriers and benefits with Kevin Baxter. It was energizing and truly inspirational. The following day, we attended a very large educator conference at UC Irvine with Sue Buckley as the keynote speaker. We continued our discussion of the difficulty of fully including our children in any school, especially Catholic schools. It was there that I crossed paths again with Vicki Graf, a professor at Loyola Marymount, and I asked her if there was any hope of a large Catholic organization taking on the goal of full inclusion in Catholic schools. I remember saying to her, “I’ve been hoping for this for 15 years and it doesn’t look like it’s even going to happen in the future. I think I’m just going to create the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion myself.  Will you be on my board?” She agreed that we’d been waiting a long time and that it didn’t look like anyone was going to take it on and right then she agreed to be on my board.

For 15 years I had waited.

“There can be no separate Church for people with disabilities. We are one flock that serves a single shepherd.”
Letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Pastoral Statement (1978)
So many years later and still people were asking the question and working to make this a reality — but it was only happening in pockets across the country. There needed to be a national voice.

There needed to be a place on the web where families and educators and administrators and faith filled people could go to find resources and proof that full inclusion in Catholic school is possible.

THIS IS YOUR PLACE.
Gretchen, serving volleyball

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