Support for students with special needs in Catholic schools growing

FIRE Foundation partners with NE Iowa nonprofit

KANSAS CITY — Pope Francis made a statement in December 2015 that continues to echo loudly and clearly in the hearts and minds of the Catholic faithful around the world.

He said, “An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts.” Through a collaborative partnership, that’s exactly what is happening in the Midwest. Soon, more children with special needs will have the opportunity to attend Catholic schools. The FIRE Foundation (aka Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education), an independent nonprofit that supports inclusion of students with special needs in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced an affiliate relationship with a recently launched organization operating in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

“This is an exciting partnership that will open the doors of Catholic schools to more students with intellectual disabilities and special needs,” said Margaret VanDyke, president of the FIRE Foundation Board of Directors.

The FIRE Foundation of Northeast Iowa was recently established to provide children with special needs the opportunity for an inclusive Catholic education in their home parish school. This new advocacy and funding organization is modeled after the FIRE Foundation, a national leader in providing support that opens the doors of Catholic schools to children diagnosed with a wide range of disabilities including Down syndrome, significant learning disabilities, many who are on the Autism spectrum and students who face other special learning challenges.

“FIRE was founded in 1996 by a group of parents who shared a common dream; for their children with special needs to attend their parish schools with siblings and friends,” said Lynn Hire, executive director. “We’re excited about collaborating with our new friends in Iowa and partnering to strengthen the capacity of Catholic schools in Northeast Iowa to serve ALL students, regardless of their abilities.”

Based on the FIRE Foundation model, FIRE of Northeast Iowa aspires to educate school communities about the benefits of inclusive learning and to foster a culture of acceptance and compassion.

“Our initial goal is to help school and parish communities in our archdiocese understand the benefits of welcoming students with special needs,” said Erin Schmitz, co-founder of FIRE of Northeast Iowa. “In partnership with the leadership of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, we will focus on making resources available that empower educators and students to succeed. Starting out, we plan to provide opportunities for educators to participate in professional development opportunities related to best practices in inclusive learning. As we move forward, we’ll expand our efforts, in the same way FIRE in Kansas City has done.”

Grants from FIRE help pay salaries for special educators and para-professionals (who provide additional and sometimes individualized support), learning technology, adaptive equipment and professional development for teachers and staff. Teresa Schmitz, co-founder of FIRE of Northeast Iowa, said her family’s vision is similar.

“Our family believes in the potential of every child and the value of Catholic education,” said Teresa Schmitz, co-founder. “Our 17th grandchild, born in 2013, has Down syndrome. His birth has opened our eyes and our hearts in a whole new way to God’s love. We’re committed to growing this organization and we believe FIRE of Northeast Iowa will ultimately open the doors of Catholic schools for countless children who learn differently than their peers. From the very beginning, the Holy Spirit has been inspiring us and leading our family on this wonderful journey.”

Lack of resources, especially trained staff, is frequently cited as an obstacle to welcoming students with diagnosed special needs to Catholic schools. FIRE works closely with qualified schools to help cover a significant portion of the costs of creating effective inclusive learning environments. FIRE of Northeast Iowa plans to provide similar support in the future. For more information about FIRE Foundation, visit firefoundation.org.

For more information about FIRE Foundation of Northeast Iowa, visit firefoundationneiowa.org.

PHOTO: The Schmitz family, led by Jim and Teresa Schmitz (middle row-center), live in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. They founded a FIRE affiliate that will assist special needs students attending local Catholic schools. (Contributed photo)

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