Rooted in Gospel values that affirm the dignity of every person, Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs provides unified pastoral and educational support for individuals with disabilities, and serves as a centralized resource for the Diocesan community.
Through direct service at Saint Catherine Academy or our Adult Day Program, and support in the Parishes or Catholic Schools for faith formation, The Center strives to foster the educational, spiritual and social well-being of people with disabilities.
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.
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.
“Looking Beyond Ourselves”: 20th Anniversary Joy & Gratitude Dinner
It was an extraordinary evening on June 9th, as more than 320 friends, family, and supporters of Saint Catherine Center gathered at Fairfield University to celebrate 20 years of providing a faith-based education for children with special needs.
After an invocation from Msgr. Robert Weiss, Pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, Board Chairman Charles Chiusano introduced the evening’s honorees: the late Jim O’Brien, whose family accepted his award for Volunteer Service; Marie & Sal Gilbertie, for Community Partnership; and Dian Jennings Mayo, for Leadership. (Read more about the honorees.)
Following dinner, Helen Burland, Executive Director, spoke of how the Center has evolved since its founding in 1999 at a former retreat center on the grounds of the Catholic Center, and has grown to a “vibrant, joyful mission” now serving more than 40 children and young adults with disabilities.
“Saint Catherine’s is not as much a place as it is an experience where children and young adults learn responsibility—alongside math and reading; respect—while they learn how to empty a dishwasher; and trust—while they navigate a grocery store or try a new skill at a job site… It is a place where joy and gratitude go hand and hand with perseverance and hard work,” Helen said.
Most Reverend Bishop Frank Caggiano expressed his personal gratitude to Helen for her “faith, tenacity, and leadership” in the growth of the Center, and thanked the staff for their work, calling it a “ministry.” Then a short video was shown, which chronicled the passing of 20 years through the story of one of the first students, Francesca, who is now a participant in the Adult Day Program.
“The work is very challenging—sometimes exasperatingly so,” said Helen, “but when we get it right, it is so profoundly moving that we keep going… Most importantly, these young people teach us how to look beyond ourselves.”
The event was also financially successful—a $100,000 challenge gift in the Call to Charity was matched by contributions from 90 generous donors. Funds raised from the dinner will be used to establish a Capital Fund to meet future programming needs.
New Canaan High School Class of 1978 Honors Memory of Katherine Schlegel
When Elena (Peters) and Stephen Schlegel lost their 20-year-old daughter Katherine last fall, members of the New Canaan High School Class of 1978 quickly focused their upcoming 40th Reunion celebration to make the event a fundraiser for Saint Catherine Center, where the Schlegels chose to honor Katherine’s memory.
Katherine Schlegel carried a bright, bubbly personality in life and was a quick friend to many people she met along the way. As her father Steve pointed out, “Katherine was always the brightest light in the room.” In a similar way, Saint Catherine Center has become a bright light to many area families of children and young adults with special needs.
“Many students and participants are now reaching the age where they need a new challenge,” said Helen Burland, Executive Director. “An expanded living and learning facility is becoming a top priority.”
Recently members from the Class visited Saint Catherine Center for a tour and to present the gift, which will go toward a capital campaign to help us meet the growing needs of the population we serve.
Special Success: Meet the Athletes!
A willingness to try new things has brought about some exciting new experiences for two young women in our Adult Program.
Cheering with the Stars
For the past four years, Tierra has spent Sunday afternoons with her teammates on the CT Stars Inspiration Team working on their cheer routines. “I like the dancing part,” Tierra says, “especially when we jump up in a ‘V’!”
Tierra’s mother, Nicole Latimer-Livingston, is assistant coach of the team, as well as president of the CT Youth Spirit Conference and its local association, Bridgeport Charge, which has won four national championships. “Tierra would attend practices and competitions with me and would always ask if she could do cheerleading as well,” Nicole says. So when American Youth Cheer (AYC) created the Inspiration Division for young people with cognitive or physical disabilities, Nicole got Tierra involved. She participates in three to four events a year.
Early this past November, the CT Stars Inspiration Team travelled to Kissimmee, Florida, to show off their skills in the AYC National Championships. Tierra enjoyed staying in a hotel and eating out in restaurants. When asked if she was nervous performing, Tierra said, “I wasn’t nervous because I was happy.”
Her mom concurs. “Tierra absolutely loves cheering.”
Triumphing with the Team
In September, Sami competed in her first triathlon—the Westport Tri—with help from members of myTeam Triumph, a nationwide program that brings volunteer athletes together with people with disabilities to help them compete and enjoy endurance events like triathlons and road races. In the Westport Tri, myTeam Triumph pulled Sami in an inflatable boat on Long Island Sound, then moved her into a special chair which was first pulled by a bike and then pushed over the finish line. The event, Sami’s 9th competition, was featured recently in Dan Woog’s “06880” blog.
Although Sami is nonverbal, her mother Lori can tell she likes participating in the events from how animated she becomes when she sees her new “angel” friends. “One of my most important goals for Sami is that she is an active participant in her community,” Lori says. “This group has been heaven-sent to us…Sami has made new friends whom she now runs into all over town. She has a whole new community of love and support.”