NOTE RE COVID-19:
Following recommendations from the CDC and the State of Connecticut regarding the coronavirus pandemic, we have tentatively targeted April 20, 2020 to reopen the Center. The safety of our students, young adults, and staff is our main priority. Please check back at this site for further updates.
Rooted in Gospel values that affirm the dignity of every person, Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs fosters the educational, spiritual, and social well-being of people with disabilities through direct services at Saint Catherine Academy and our Adult Day Program, and support for faith formation in the parishes and inclusion in Catholic schools of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Our Core Values
We respect the dignity and diversity of each person.
We serve people of all races, ethnicities, faiths, and economic backgrounds.
We focus on the total well-being of each person we serve.
We create a supportive and welcoming atmosphere, where each person feels a sense of belonging.
We celebrate the abilities and successes of each person.
We seek to build interpersonal relationships in a nurturing community.
We bring hope and joy to our students, clients, families, staff, and community partners.
Adult Program Celebrates 5th Anniversary
March 2020 marks the fifth year of the Adult Program at Saint Catherine Center.
Shortly after coming on board as Executive Director in 2008, Helen Burland recognized the need for quality programming for young adults after they completed a school program. With Board support, she initiated a feasibility study for a program at Saint Catherine and hired Laura Grozier (now Director of Operations) to assist her. They visited numerous adult day facilities in the area and determined that a program for young adults would be viable and offer a seamless transition for individuals graduating from the Academy. “We made the commitment that there would be a place in the Adult Program for any Saint Catherine Academy student who wanted to continue with us,” Helen said.
To facilitate this evolution, Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs was established in the fall of 2014 as an umbrella entity to encompass the Academy, the Adult Program, and an Office of Parish & Community Support. In March 2015 the Adult Program opened with two former Academy students and two individuals from the Fairfield area. Parents immediately appreciated the small size, access to transportation, the quality of the staff, and the continued focus on life skills. Bowling, swimming, and community outings have been part of the schedule from the beginning. Over time, art, music, and yoga classes were added, as well as vocational experiences.
“The goal at both the Academy and the Adult Program has always been independence,” said Helen. “Our role is to support each individual in doing as much as they can. There is a palpable energy at the Center that comes from the feeling of purpose that our young people have.”
Today, the Adult Program has reached capacity with 26 participants from 14 towns. A Board committee is actively looking at ways to expand the facility to serve more adults and enhance vocational opportunities. Stay tuned for the next evolution at Saint Catherine Center!
The Joy of Reading: Library Volunteers Make Stories Come Alive
“When we started the Library Program back in 2008, the idea was for the children to experience and enjoy books read out loud and learn to feel comfortable in a library,” said volunteer Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama. “Going to the local library is an ordinary life experience; we wanted Saint Catherine students to have that.”
Virginia had been approached by Jeanie Tisdale, who was then Area Chair of the Order of Malta, to see if she would consider developing a program for the library at the Academy, which had just received a grant from the Order for improvements. Virginia and Jeanie (pictured at right) met with Helen Burland, Executive Director, to discuss the possibilities, and the Library Program at Saint Catherine Center was born.
Led by a dedicated group of Malta volunteers, a weekly Library session is now part of the curriculum for all Academy classes. “The students learn how to listen and pay attention. They also learn about responsibility—how to choose and check out a book, take it home, maybe share it with their families and bring it back the following week,” Virginia said.
“The program is entirely volunteer-run,” said Helen. “It has been wonderful to see it evolve and become part of our curriculum. We so appreciate what all the volunteers do for us. It’s a big commitment and we depend on them.” In addition to Virginia and Jeanie, other regular volunteers include Carrie Sindelar, Christy Duggan, Judy Miller, and Ellen Arsenault. New to the program this year are Elena Schlegel, Chris Woods, and Julie Genovese.
The volunteers have learned how to be flexible and “go with the flow” according to the students’ needs. “The students come back from their library session excited,” said Sr. Cheryl Driscoll, one of the teachers. “The stories are fun and appropriate for them. They find words they can recognize and are using their skills.”
While improving reading and listening skills is important, having fun is key. Volunteers use singing and movement to make the stories come alive. “Five golden rings!” Ronald sang out at a recent session. He knew most of the words to “The 12 Days of Christmas” and his excitement helped other students join in the song.
“We’re always trying to gear our book choices toward something they love,” Virginia said. The “Pete the Cat” series by James Dean, in which a cat learns to make the best of various difficult and humorous situations, is very popular. Another favorite pop-up book, “The Color Monster,” by Anna Llenas, helps readers identify and cope with emotions. “Whatever we have, we make the most of it,” Virginia noted. “Books bring comfort, new ideas, different ways of dealing with situations. There’s a lot of joy and humor in reading, and the kids experience it.”
Participants in the Adult Program also use the library, borrowing a book to read or listen to as part of their daily schedule. Approximately a third of the young adults have independent reading skills, and all enjoy story-telling time when staff read aloud to the whole group.
After 11 years of volunteering in the library at the Center, both Virginia and Jeanie continue to find the work rewarding. “I love being with the students, getting to know them, and sharing time with them,” Virginia said.
Jeanie agreed. “For me, it is always perfect time… It comes, after all, from many years of rising up to meet the kids wherever they are. I always leave with so much more than I give.”
The Saint Catherine Center library is dedicated to Catherine McClinch, an Academy student who loved the Library program. When she passed away in 2016, her mother donated her books, which occupy a special section of the library.
A Very Special Christmas Story
On December 20th, the gym at Saint Catherine Center was filled with family and friends eager to watch our Saint Catherine Academy students enact the annual Christmas Pageant. This year’s production, “A Cousins’ Christmas,” was written by former Academy teacher Mollie Mitchell and told the familiar story with an emphasis on the closeness between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth and the value of the gifts we are to each other. All students had a role. “It was beautiful to see how much some of our students have grown in the past year,” said Sr. Cheryl, who directed the Pageant.
This special event each year would not be possible without the help of many people: volunteers from the Order of Malta who provide refreshments; Knights of Columbus-St. Patrick Council who bring Santa with them; Sean Nayden, who set up the ramp for the actors to travel on; Russ and Amy Nagy from the Fairfield University Quick Center, who set up the lighting; and the dedicated Saint Catherine Academy staff. Thank you all!
Read more about the Pageant in Fairfield County Catholic.
The Great Gift of Just Being a Child of God: Center Hosts Mass Celebrating People with Special Needs
More than 150 family members and friends gathered on Sunday, November 17th, at Holy Cross Church in Fairfield for the annual Mass Celebrating People with Special Needs, hosted by Saint Catherine Center.
In his homily, Most Reverend Frank J. Caggiano spoke of the “unique witness” given by the 12 young people who were receiving the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. “God has chosen these young people in baptism and reaffirms their baptism [in Confirmation] because they are worth everything to him before they do a single thing,” the bishop said. “It’s with their joy, their enthusiasm, their innocence, their purity, their faithfulness that they respond… My friends, in a world where we are judged solely by what we can offer, today as we celebrate these sacraments let us remember the great gift of just being a son or daughter of God. Everything else takes a second place.”
Participants came from St. Mary’s Church (Norwalk), St. Thomas Aquinas Church (Fairfield), St. Rose of Lima (Newtown), The Cathedral Parish (Bridgeport), and five students from Saint Catherine Academy.
Each year, Saint Catherine Center offers the opportunity for individuals with special needs to receive the Sacraments of Initiation outside the typical faith formation program. Center staff worked with parents and Directors of Religious Education throughout the Diocese to coordinate preparation and participation.
Msgr. William Scheyd and Rev. Charles Allen, SJ, concelebrated the Mass with the bishop. Members of the Knights of Columbus Honor Guard, Saint Catherine Center board members, and staff joined the celebration. Family members gave the readings and two students from Saint Catherine Academy presented the gifts. The bishop acknowledged Saint Catherine Center staff, the Center’s Board of Directors, and Executive Director Helen Burland for their work with young people with special needs. “The Center is not a ‘Center,’” he said. “It’s a home.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Bishop Caggiano presented Joe and Carrie Sindelar of New Canaan with the St. Augustine Medal of Service for outstanding volunteerism. (The couple was unable to attend the prayer service and award ceremony in October.) A longstanding member of the Board of Directors, Joe is a tireless advocate for Saint Catherine Center. Carrie has volunteered her time and expertise in numerous ways, assisting in the Library Program and organizing tables for the Center’s annual “Joy & Gratitude” Dinner. “Both Joe and Carrie have been outstanding advocates for our students and young adults,” said Helen Burland, Executive Director. “They always respond to whatever is needed.” View photos
Keeping the Vision Clear: 20th Anniversary Mass Celebration
Bright sunflowers and smiling faces helped to transform the gym into a sanctuary at Saint Catherine Center as more than 125 students and their families, faculty, staff, and friends gathered together on September 22 to celebrate 20 years of service to young people with disabilities.
Bishop Frank J. Caggiano was the principal celebrant, along with concelebrants Msgr. Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown and Center board member, and Msgr. William Scheyd.
“How blessed are we that for 20 years we have Saint Catherine’s Academy and those who lead it, who see the world differently,” Bishop Caggiano said. “Everyone who comes here is here because they are beloved, first by God and then by His servants who are you and me.”
Readers included Charles Chiusano, Chairman of the Center’s Board; Anna Stowe, an Academy student; and Eric Spencer, Director of Education. Erin Aoyama led the congregation in song. The sunflowers were donated by Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens. A reception followed the service.
The bishop expressed appreciation to the Saint Catherine Center Board. “To have a vision is one thing. To make it real is another,” he said. He also recognized Helen Burland, Executive Director, for being the “animator of this entire enterprise,” and thanked the young people of the Center. “You keep our vision clear,” he said.