Foundation helps educate students with special needs

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Foundation helps educate students with special needs

Providing a Catholic education for their five children has always been important to Lelia Haring and her husband, but when it came to their youngest daughter, Katie, there was a hurdle to jump. Katie has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. The family ended up starting the FIRE Foundation of Greater Chicago.
Elizabeth Henning works on lessons with Katie Harig at St. James School in Arlington Heights on Sept. 9, 2021. The FIRE Foundation provided a grant to the school to pay the salary of Henning, who is Katie’s one-on-one aide. The FIRE Foundation of Greater Chicago raises funds to provide children with special needs the opportunity for an inclusive education in Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Griffin Markel practices with his team, the Bartlett Raiders, at Ruzicka Memorial Park in Bartlett, on Oct. 21, 2021. Griffin, a first-year flag football player and student at St. John the Evangelist School in Streamwood, has Down syndrome and recently scored his first touchdown. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Providing a Catholic education for their five children has always been important to Lelia Harig and her husband, but when it came to their youngest daughter, Katie, there was a hurdle to jump. Katie has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Because Catholic schools cannot always afford to provide one-on-one aides for students with disabilities or may not be handicapped accessible, that is not always an option. The Harigs started Katie in public schools, but did not stop trying to find a way to provide her with a Catholic education.

“Her older brothers and sisters have all been in Catholic school, and we wanted to give her the same experience. We tried home schooling for a while and that was OK, but she was very isolated,” Harig said.

In 2018, the family made a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin and prayed for guidance about Katie’s education.

“A little while later, my husband and I thought, ‘We should just start something. This is a problem, not just for us but for lots of families and something needs to be done,’” she said.

They spoke to many people and learned that the best way was to help the Catholic schools provide aides for students like Katie.

Then they learned about the FIRE Foundation, a national organization based in Kansas City that raises money to provide grants to Catholic schools so they can educate students with special needs.

“I thought, ‘We have to do this in Chicago,’” Haring said. She and her husband started the affiliate FIRE Foundation of Greater Chicago in August 2019.

During that time, the Harings were in discussions with St. James School in Arlington Heights and the previous pastor, Father Matt Foley, who said the school was willing to work with them to educate Katie.

“They already had a special education program, but they never had a student with as significant needs as Katie,” Harig said.

The local FIRE Foundation affiliate they started raised money for the school to hire aides for both Katie and another student to begin attending during the 2019-2020 school year. Katie is now in eighth grade at St. James and the school has another student in kindergarten with cerebral palsy.

Michael Kendrick, principal of St. James School, says grants from the foundation help his school meet its goal of providing a quality Catholic education to all children.

“In a lot of places, it’s difficult to provide a Catholic education to kids that have those severe needs, not only from a physical standpoint but a mental and social and emotional aspect as well,” he said. “With these two students in particular, the FIRE Foundation really helps to support us in being able to provide them with a one-on-one aide. That’s where our funding goes.”

Being able to include students with special needs and disabilities in their classrooms fits the mission of Catholic schools.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing and I think it’s a way that we really live out our faith as Catholics,” Kendrick said. “Jesus didn’t go to the 99th percentile and then hang with those people all day. He didn’t have the disciples take a test to see if they could follow him. He went to the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the lepers and said, ‘These are my people.’ That’s what we really want to do.”

Having Katie as part of their school benefits the other students as well, Harig said.

“It’s so good for the other students, because it just teaches them to be patient and understanding and compassionate. It shows them in a real way that every person is important to God and has their own personality and something to share,” she said. “All the kids in her class have been really great with her.”

And, of course, it has benefited Katie.

“Her personality has come out more and you can tell she really enjoys being with the other kids and part of the community,” she said. “One of our main goals was for her to be part of a faith community and be able to go to the school Mass. Being a part of that has been really great for her.”

The FIRE Foundation of Greater Chicago supports five students in four schools and has requests for more grants.

“We’re hoping that this will build up the Catholic school system in Chicago and provide and opportunity for these kids,” she said. “When their siblings all go to the parish school and they’re not able to go, that’s just so sad. A family with a child who has special needs should be able to have a choice between Catholic and public. It shouldn’t be that you just have one choice.”

St. John the Evangelist School in Streamwood is one of the schools receiving a grant, which funds an aide for Griffin Markel, 7, who has Down syndrome.

Gina Markel, Griffin’s mother, said that when the pandemic hit and their public school went to remote learning, she and her husband quickly learned their son needed in-person classes. She called several Catholic schools to see if they would accept her three children, noting Griffin’s special needs.

“The response from all three or four schools that I called was, ‘Oh, no, sorry. We can’t accommodate him,’” she said.

Then they called St. John the Evangelist and spoke to Principal Beth Wennerstrom. Wennerstrom said they would love to have Griffin and his siblings.  

“We had no idea as to how it was going to work out,” Markel said. “I just knew trying to do e-learning at the end of 2019 that it just wasn’t going to work for Griffin. The attention span just sitting in front of the computer wasn’t possible.”

Despite Griffin being old enough to be in kindergarten or first grade, the school started him off last year in preschool because they had a teacher and two aides at that level. Then Wennerstrom applied for a grant for an aide through the FIRE Foundation, which the school received last summer.

What started out as a temporary solution during the pandemic has turned into all of the kids enrolling at St. John the Evangelist and wanting to stay.

“I really feel like it was a huge win for our family,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable how we feel so connected to the school now. They are like a family to us.”

Griffin received local media attention after he scored a touchdown in October for the Bartlett Raiders during their homecoming game. The team set up a surprise for Griffin so he would get the ball during a play, but no one was really sure what would happen, Markel explained.

“Oh my gosh, did it work out,” she said. “We thought, ‘Yeah, you’re going to give him the ball but is he going to know where to go? Is he going to stop running or will he just keep running to the parking lot?’ He knew just what to do.”

Griffin is now in first grade and loving school along with football.

“This year he really, really is enjoying school,” Markel said.

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