Monday, August 12, 2013

Building A Door

"If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door." -- Milton Berle

Last Saturday night I had a dream come true. 
It isn't often that something that you have been thinking about for years and creating in your mind takes place, but last Saturday night that's what happened.  We had a Dinner Under the Stars in our backyard.  We set out tables of eight and put on white table cloths. We had someone fill vases of flowers with gerbera daisies and sunflowers.  We had a chef create delicious treats and we paused our busy lives and said thanks.

The universe seemed to be in on the action too.  The weather cooperated with a lovely cool night.  The sunset went down with its typical, breath-taking beauty.  The stars came out and danced and decorated the night sky.  

Last Saturday night, I had the joy to formally thank, out loud and in person, two people who helped build a door, 
Father Dan Looney and Mary Kay Bolz.

Do you know why it's blurry?  My hand was shaking...that's what happens when a dream is coming true!

When Patrick was born, one of the very first things that broke my heart was the idea that he wouldn't be able to be a part of Jack and Mary Kate's world at school.  I thought that because he had Down Syndrome he would be automatically excluded from attending the Catholic school that was such a huge part of our lives.  I felt the feeling of isolation and exclusion almost immediately and I cried for Patrick.  I cried for Jack and Mary Kate and I cried for all the others who had been excluded before us.  I could feel the deep sadness of being an outsider and wanted an opportunity to belong.

When Patrick was just days old, we attended mass.  We were reeling from the news that Patrick not only had Down Syndrome but that he would need open heart surgery within just a few weeks.  We were scared and sad.  We tried to go through the motions of our old life but we knew that it was just that...we had crossed a bridge and our life would be forever different.

Guess who met us outside of church?  Guess who held tiny baby Patrick...held him close, looked into his eyes...saw his beauty and acknowledged it?  Guess who gave him a blessing -- simple and from the heart -- right there outside of mass on a sunny, hot July day?  Yes, that dear man in the picture above, Father Dan.  I remember hot tears in my eyes and the beauty of acceptance. I am forever grateful...and let's not even talk about John's love and appreciation of that moment.  I know for him that was a salve and a healing that will be with him forever.

As Patrick grew, the feeling of being excluded from school led me to search online in the hope that maybe others had been included in their local Catholic schools.
Turns out, they had.
I linked up with nationwide groups like the Network of Inclusive Catholic Educators.  I found out about FIRE and REACH and a whole host of other small groups working toward including people with disabilities in the classrooms and in the religious education classes of Catholic churches all over the United States.  There are pockets of inclusion in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Miami, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Kansas City, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina and Los Angeles, California.

It was happening all over the country.

So, Father Dan, the pastor of St. James parish, and Mary Kay Bolz, the principal of St. James School,  took a leap of faith.  Together they allowed Patrick the opportunity of becoming a student at St. James.  When I asked Mary Kay if she wanted me to write a note to the parents of the kindergarten class about Patrick I will never forget her words: "No, Beth, that's not necessary.  You see, I want them to come talk to me.  I want them to look me in the eye and tell me how Patrick being in that class will be a problem for their child.  Bring it on."

Turns out that no one ever felt the need to approach Mary Kay.  The parents in Patrick's class have been nothing but supportive, encouraging and welcoming, always.
The Dinner Under the Stars was for them too.

And for the teachers.  God bless the teachers...the ones who actually had to navigate the uncharted territory of full inclusion.  The ones who had to deal with the everyday glitches.  The ones who had to make the phone call and troubleshoot. And it was for Bev, our school secretary, who has been in on more than her fair share of various forms of Patrick illness and Patrick's lovely sense of time and slowing down the journey.  I don't want to total up the number of tardies she has written for my son...but it's plenty.

But the Dinner Under the Stars was also for other parents of children with disabilities.  It was for other teachers at other schools, other administrators and other angels who believe in this mission even if they have nothing to personally gain from it.  They are the cheerleaders and the encouragers.  It was for them too.  It was a chance to look over the road we have travelled and a chance to see the road ahead of us.

The door has been opened for Patrick but that's not the end of the story.  There are other doors to be built.  Other doors to open and other people waiting to cross through the threshold.  It's up to us to widen the entrance.  It's up to us to hold out our hands and welcome them.  It's up to us to let them know that inclusion may be scary and uncomfortable but it is never pointless.  It is never a waste of time to include those on the fringes....isn't that whole point of being Catholic?

So, while I got to stop and say thanks to two amazing trailblazers, we aren't by any means done.  We have many, many more families to include and welcome and plenty of students who wish for the same opportunity.  It's up to us to point the way and keep walking the path.

 And, to the many whose shoulders I have stood on in this journey who could not be at the Dinner Under the Stars, please know you were in my heart.  Angie Quissell, Kevin Baxter, Lilly Rangel Diaz, Cindy May, Dave Perry and countless others -- you were there.  You were sparkling and shining.  You were a part of something that I hope keeps growing and thriving and becomes a full-on paradigm shift within Catholic education.
Keep shining.  Keep building doors.  Keep at it.
We're not done.

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