By Ellen Wedemeyer
From the first day of school at St. Gabriel in Norwood, I knew I was different. I didn’t learn the way the other students seemed to learn. In the third grade, I was tested and I started to hear rumblings about the possibility of me attending public school. One night, when I was supposed to be in bed, I was sitting at the top of the stairs listening to my parents’ conversation. My mother said, “If what they are saying is true and she really is different in some way, now is not the time to separate her from Jesus.” That sentence changed my life.
My parents’ wish for me would have been incomplete had it not been for the teacher who was waiting for me in fourth grade, Mrs. Margaret Egan. She said to me, “You learn in a way I have never seen before, and I’m not quite sure what we are going to do but we are going to figure it out together.” For the first time, I didn’t feel alone. I wish I could tell you that I turned to Mrs. Egan in that moment and replied, “Yes, we do need to figure this out because one day, I’m going to be the assistant superintendent for special education of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, responsible for thousands of children with special needs attending Catholic schools, and I’m going to be a nationally published author on the subject of special needs children in Catholic schools.” I wish I had said that. I didn’t; but it came true anyway.
Today within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia we have programs at the elementary and secondary level for students with learning challenges. Special education teachers of amazing talent and dedication pay homage to Mrs. Egan as they teach these students skills to keep them from falling through the cracks. We have special education schools for the blind and deaf and for those with cognitive and developmental delay and multiple impairments. Our special education schools have been hit hard by the economy and donations are needed so we can continue our work. Unlike our public school friends, we do not have a large war chest at our disposal; but what we do have cannot be funded, ratified or mandated.
We have the message at the entrance of our schools that proclaims, “Christ is the reason for this school.” We have compassion. We have love and acceptance, and we have the Beatitudes which tell us that “the meek will inherit the earth.” We have the desire to open our doors and minds and hearts to those with physical and learning needs. We have Jesus, the master teacher, and every day we educate His children in His name. As we do, lives are changed, just like mine was changed.
Why did Mrs. Egan reach out to me the way she did? Maybe she had read the bishops’ statement of 1978 pertaining to those with disabilities. There can be no separate Church for children with disabilities. We are one Church. We follow a single Shepherd. We are one flock. Maybe she saw the challenge of teaching me as more of a blessing than a burden. What I do know is had it not been for my parents’ insistence that a Catholic education trumps any other option on the table, and the Catholic educator who refused to give up on me, someone else would have written this article.
To find out how you can change the life of a child with a special need through a Catholic education or to make a much needed donation to the programs and schools of Catholic special education, please contact the Office of Catholic Education at 215-587-3700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ellen Wedemeyer is the archdiocesan assistant superintendent for special education.