School, parish rally around student with mobility challenges

By Daniel P. Smith
Sunday, January 24, 2016

Like other parents of students at St. Catherine of Alexandria, Tony Martin heard the stories, the rumblings of student Jack DeMatteo’s growing struggles to navigate the Oak Lawn elementary school.

As DeMatteo’s muscles became increasingly weak as he battled the intensifying effects of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that strains muscles and complicates one’s ability to climb stairs, maintain balance and raise the arms, the elementary school student’s daily life became more complicated and challenging.

“I’d hear my son tell me how Jack had to crawl up stairs and fight just to make it into the classroom,” said Martin, whose son, Eddie, is a classmate of DeMatteo.

And, together, the St. Catherine of Alexandria community pushed for a solution.

For the better part of three years, Tom DeMatteo, Jack’s father, had been fighting to make the school more accessible to people with disabilities, knowing that his son’s muscles would progressively weaken.

Initially, the DeMatteos explored the possibility of adding a chair lift to the school, an option nixed by building inspectors. The DeMatteos then investigated an elevator, which proved to be a feasible, albeit costly, alternative carrying a price tag well above $200,000.

It seemed an insurmountable task.

That is until Martin and others across the Southwest suburban parish pledged their support and jumped into action.

“I just knew we could do this,” said Martin, who spearheaded the project. “We’re a parish rich in talent and spirit.”

A group of parishioners led by Martin, Eddie McBrearty and John Campbell began working on a plan, identifying resources and personnel the parish could leverage to make the elevator a reality. The estimated cost came in at $60,000, a mighty, but not insurmountable sum, especially given the fact that the DeMatteos had already landed a $10,000 grant from Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

With a call to action, financial contributions poured in from the parish’s Men’s Club, the Athletic Association, local businesses, lemonade stands and $1 dress-down days in the school, raising some $56,000.

With the necessary capital in hand to fund the project, Martin and his team then scoured the parish for help, boosted by the full support of the St. Catherine pastor Rev. Patrick Henry, Monsignor Mike Adams and school principal Catherine Hudson.

Calling upon others to share their time and talents, expertise and commitment, Martin and his team found willing partners time and again.

Local attorneys John Campbell, John Farrell and Mary Pat Burns crafted a thorough proposal and secured approval from the archdiocese, lining up insurance and other construction requirements.

Chicago-based McBrearty Construction provided demolition and construction of the shaft; Ozinga Cement Co., Elston Block and Illinois Brick Co. donated cement, steel and cement block; Gonzalez Roofing built the roof; Elevator Services Incorporated installed the elevator; and Palos Electric donated much of the electrical work.

“We assembled all the necessary trades and skills to meet every requirement,” Martin said.

Whenever called upon, parishioners jumped in to lend a hand — bricklayers, painters, ironworkers, electricians and more all devoting their time to the spirited project.

“There were a lot of union guys there on their off days or at night,” Martin said, who calls the elevator project the ultimate collaborative effort. “Whenever I picked up the phone to call someone, the answer was always, ‘Yes.’ So many pitched in to bring something to the table.”

The elevator installation was complete at the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Jack DeMatteo’s sixth-grade year, and an access ramp was recently installed to provide De- Matteo and others improved access into the school and church.

“Jack was the driving force,” Martin said. “He’s been an inspiration to this entire parish and we weren’t going to stop until this project was completed.”

St. Catherine of Alexandria principal Michelle Edwards said many students at the 428-pupil school have grown up with DeMatteo and experienced his challenges alongside him. She called the project an important lesson in giving to others.

“It’s a valuable message four our kids that we can’t just think of ourselves in life. There are others in need that we must look out for and treat well,” Edwards said.

While the elevator has increased DeMatteo’s ability to navigate the school, the foremost mission of the effort, Martin echoed Edwards’ hopes that the project spotlighted the power of selfless acts and collective action to the broader St. Catherine community, particularly its youth.

“At the end of the day, I think these kids win because they see how people can contribute their talents and collectively produce a positive result that helps others,” Martin said.


  • catholic schools
  • disabilities
  • people with disabilties
  • st. catherine of alexandria
  • oak lawn

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