A crowd of 350 teenage students from across the region learned about respect for all human life at the High School Respect Life Conference and Rally April 6 at Neumann University’s Mirenda Center.
Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Life and Family, the annual event with the theme “Leaders for Life” encouraged the students to celebrate all life, at every stage.
(See a photo gallery of the event here.)
“The goal of the program is to help high school students see the value of life in all forms — not just in the womb,” said program leader Joseph Aquilante.
The students were drawn to the event for different reasons, some typical for teens and some not.
Raeanna, from Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford, most looked forward to getting new tips on how to strengthen the pro-life program back at her high school after successfully implementing ideas from last year’s event.
Arlene, a student at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill, who also attended last year’s event, returned at the recommendation of her theology teacher and found it a “fun way to meet new people.”
Mike, a student from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, echoed that sentiment: “I think that this is a wonderful event that brings schools together,” he said.
Ultimately, one common cause united them: respecting all lives, at every stage.
Keynote speaker Dr. Karen Gaffney emphasized this in her talk and stood as a witness to it.
She is the founder and president of a foundation in her name that champions “full inclusion for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities,” according to its website, and she has made a name for herself in the swimming world by participating in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon and swimming the length of Lake Tahoe.
With all those accomplishments, Gaffney also has Down syndrome.
Being born with an extra chromosome hasn’t prevented her from accomplishing several major achievements. Gaffney is the first person with Down syndrome to receive a doctorate, to give a Ted Talk and to swim in a relay crossing the English Channel.
She told students in her talk that previous generations of people with Down syndrome had opened doors of understanding and that “their hard work was not in vain. We show (people) the possibilities.”
Even as much progress has being made in understanding and valuing people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, Gaffney lamented that pregnancies are being terminated because parents can obtain early screening for Down syndrome.
Gaffney bristled at the notion that the syndrome is “not compatible” with life.
“Think about your cousin, brother, sister, anyone you know with Down syndrome, think of me,” she said. “I’m not compatible with life?
“The voice of Down syndrome has to be loud enough and powerful enough to change the hearts and minds of people in all walks of life. It is a life worth living. It is a life worth saving … Down syndrome is compatible with life.”
Gaffney challenged the audience to be “leaders for life and … stand up for Down syndrome. Stand up for us and with us,” she said.
This could be done by merely reaching out and saying hello to a person with the syndrome, because “we need a friend,” she said, adding, “we need all the advocates we can get.”
Gaffney’s talk was followed by a Q and A session, during which students expressed their gratitude for her appearance and expressed admiration for her courage and strength.
“I think (the talk) makes a difference,” she told CatholicPhilly.com afterward. “People really understand the real definition of Down syndrome and take away the message that we are like everyone else even though we’re different.”
The day had a particularly special impact on the students from one school.
St. Katherine Day School is a special education school for students from ages 4 and a half to 21, with a high school program located within Archbishop Carroll High School’s campus, and several students were present at the event.
“Today is important,” said Muffy Tulskie, one of the St. Katherine’s students. It emphasizes “everyone has talent. People with disabilities can do anything and everything. There’s nothing I can’t do,” she said.
“We feel that Archbishop Carroll and Katherine Day are already meeting Dr. Karen’s challenge — we together are living it out,” said teacher Rosemary Faris. “We are faith in action.”
Barry Kirsch, the Pro-Life Club moderator at Archbishop Carroll, said, “It’s an awesome day for us to be exposed to someone who overcame a difficult start and has done such amazing things. It’s great for our kids and for St. Katherine Day’s kids … (they’re) totally inspired.”