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So far Saint Catherine has created 15 blog entries.

Easing into a New Routine: Adult Program Reopens

The reopening of the Adult Program in mid-July was marked by virtual hugs and elbow bumps as we welcomed back more than half of our adult participants to the Center. While observing necessary safety precautions, both participants and staff are excited to be together again. View photos

To allow for social distancing, rooms have been rearranged and the larger group has been split into cohorts who will stay together with the same staff for four-week intervals. Making use of Smartboard and computer workstations in each classroom, the groups connect with each other and those at home through Zoom sessions every afternoon, as well as music each week with Mr. Matt. Art and yoga classes are being held in person, with a virtual option for those at home. Individuals who have elected to remain at home also receive daily one-on-one calls with staff.

“It was quite a process to create a staggered schedule that could work for everyone and allow for necessary safety precautions,” said Helen Burland, Executive Director, “but it is working very well so far.” 

Each individual follows his or her daily schedule of activities, which can include reading, puzzles, shredding, and exercise in the gym, as well as daily walks in the neighborhood and at Lake Mohegan. While bowling and swimming is on hold for now, the staff has gotten quite creative with onsite activities. On a recent afternoon, Patrick N. and Natalie put the finishing touches on their homemade guitars, created from tissue boxes and paper towel rolls. Ryan and Ellie focused on painting the rocks they found at Lake Mohegan. On another morning, participants learned some interesting facts about ponies and horses in a live virtual tour of the stables at New Canaan Mounted Troop, a nonprofit that offers educational horsemanship and equine care programs for youth.

In the smaller cohorts, staff have had the opportunity to spend more individual time with participants and get to know them better. “It’s clear that these caring relationships are at the center of what makes Saint Catherine’s a special place,” said Brady Cronin, Director of the Adult Program.

Graduation 2020: Reasons to be Thankful

Although the outdoor venue was different, Saint Catherine Academy Graduation 2020 was no less joyful for this year’s graduates, Ronald Scott and Elise Hilton. The two were celebrated in a ceremony at the Center with immediate family, staff, and a few classmates in attendance.

Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown and Center Board Member, led the prayer service and offered a short homily in which he noted that even while the pandemic has taken away so much from many, it has also reminded us of what really matters in life. “You truly see the goodness of people… Certainly today is an example of that as we celebrate Elise and Ronald and the great gift that they are for each one of us, the love and joy they bring us in their own unique ways, reminding us of the preciousness and joy of life.”

Lorraine Hilton, Elise’s mother, offered Prayers of the Faithful. After the presentation of diplomas, Eric Spencer, Principal, read words of affirmation from staff about the graduates, noting Elise for her “warm, angelic smile” and Ronald for his “great spirit and enthusiasm.” Ronald was also one of several students recognized by the Diocese with the St. Thomas Aquinas award for academic improvement and exemplifying Gospel values through service to others.

In his closing prayer, Msgr. Weiss repeated the message of the scripture reading. “The message today is to be grateful,” he said. “Even in the midst of our darkest moments, to find reasons to be thankful. Certainly this holy place provides reasons for being thankful every day.”

The ceremony closed with a lively version of “This Little Light of Mine,” a Saint Catherine Academy tradition. “It was a wonderful day, in the true Saint Catherine way,” Helen Burland, Executive Director commented.

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Our Community is Staying Together While We Are Apart

After the first week of “school at home,” Philip, an Academy student, opened his living room window and called out the name of every person he knew, then exclaimed, “Where are you?!”

Philip’s question embodies the need we all feel to stay connected, now more than ever. When the decision was made to close the Center four weeks ago, staff quickly regrouped to find ways for our students and young adults to continue to progress academically and maintain their living skills while at home.

Academy teachers and assistants have been reaching out regularly to individual families with lesson plans and suggestions for adapting material and activities at home. Students are completing worksheets, exercising, and trying out recipes sent out by their teachers. For students who do not have access to a printer, teachers are mailing packets to their homes. “We’re following each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as much as possible,” said Eric Spencer, Director of Education. “It’s been helpful for our students and their families just to hear a teacher’s familiar voice on the phone, checking in.”

In the Adult Program, each of the 15 Direct Service Professionals (DSP) have taken one or two young adults on a rotating basis for the duration of the home stay. They call or FaceTime each day, talking with participants about what they have been doing, and sometimes sharing photos. Like the students, participants have been doing their ADLs (Activities of Daily Living), practicing their letters, watching movies, and talking to grandparents on Zoom. From her “home office,” Brady Cronin, Director of the Adult Program, also sends each family a daily schedule of activities for their young adult to help keep the structure of the day as similar to the Center as possible while remaining flexible.

“The daily FaceTime contact with Samera [DSP] has been a touchstone for Jessie in her long day at home,” said one parent, Michelle Rivelli. “Jessie has practiced her conversation skills, shown Samera her various craft projects and worksheets, and modelled her Disney costumes! Especially during this time of uncertainty, it is heartwarming to see how invested the Center is in Jessie’s welfare.”

Staff are meeting several times each week via Zoom to share their interactions with participants and families and strategize the best way to connect and adapt. A webpage of resources has been created for families to access, including a variety of links to academic resources, virtual tours, videos of staff and volunteers reading stories, art projects, a cooking project, and more. This past week, Matthew Hennessey, who provides music therapy to the Center, held live music classes on Zoom. The onscreen greetings were long and enthusiastic, as individuals recognized each other and enjoyed Mr. Matt’s familiar songs together.

“Philip loved the Zoom music session,” his mother said. “When he can see and interact with his classmates and the staff, he lights up and things become much more real. The learning information, YouTube videos and all that has been provided by the staff is VERY much appreciated.”

“The Saint Catherine community has always been very strong, and that is serving us well in this time,” said Helen Burland, Executive Director. “In answer to Philip’s question, ‘Where is everybody?’, we say ‘We’re here!’ and will continue to do all we can to keep our community connected.”

Some featured videos (see more on the Resources page):

“We Miss You!” A slideshow of our students and adults

“Hello from Saint Catherine Center Staff!”

Fr. Eric Silva offers a blessing for Saint Catherine Center

Jeanie Tisdale reads “Stellaluna”

Coin Art with Ms. Megan

“Motivated by Faith and Committed to this Incredible Community”: A Message from Helen Burland, Executive Director

March 26, 2020

Dear Friends of Saint Catherine Center and Saint Catherine Academy,

As an organization with a mission to lift up all regardless of abilities, these have been very humbling times for all of us. Initially, it seemed that we would be able to continue to serve our students and young people with some modest restrictions. Then came the realization that this was not going to be possible and we made the very difficult decision to close the Center to provide for the health and safety of our students and adult participants, many of whom are medically fragile and our staff and their families.

We recognize the extraordinary burden that this places on our families and our limitations to ease that burden. But motivated by faith and committed to the incredible community at St. Catherine’s, we have rallied!

What have we put into action?

  • We are providing education and program resources daily to our families to help bridge the time and maintain important skills through daily communication.
  • We have offered the personal touch of phone contact to get better assessment of needs.
  • We have recorded and shared stories with some key staff; we have shared music therapy videos through YouTube and we have offered art projects that are simple and home-based.
  • We have created a new section on our website which offers all of these resources in one place.
  • We have made a commitment to our staff that there will be no layoffs or furloughs through April and we will review on a month-to-month basis.
  • We are caring for each other; praying for each other; supporting our learning community in ways we never thought of before.

All of this is possible because we have been so generously supported by you; we have been good shepherds of our resources and we have built a community that values each and every person in our broad circle. To that we say thank you for being with us; thank you for staying with us. We will continue to ask ourselves each day, “What can I do today to help?” As a reminder, here are the young people we support.

With gratitude,

Helen C. Burland
Executive Director


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.

Patrick Gorman and Sonia Vielot were the first Adult Program staff members.

“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

Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama and Jeanie Tisdale

“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.

View photos

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

Helen Burland, Executive Director, thanked the guests for their support and commitment to the Center over the past 20 years.

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.

Volunteer Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama was instrumental in organizing the Mass, and her daughter Erin was the cantor for the Mass.

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.

View more photos and read more about the event in the article in Fairfield County Catholic.

“Looking Beyond Ourselves”: 20th Anniversary Joy & Gratitude Dinner

Msgr. Robert Weiss and Bishop Caggiano congratulate Marie and Sal Gilbertie, who were recognized with the Community Partnership Award.

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.

View photos from the event   Gallery 1   Gallery 2