Stories from the Center

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, 2019, 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. Volunteer Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama was instrumental in organizing the Mass, and her daughter Erin (pictured) was the cantor for the Mass. 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.

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 9, 2019, 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. 

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 2019 event   Gallery 1   Gallery 2


New Canaan High School Class of 1978 Honors Memory of Katherine Schlegel

Members of the NCHS Class of 1978, including (l-r) Leo Karl III, Susan (Ambule) Galione, Susan (Burnap) Boston, Elena (Peters) Schlegel, Steve Yates, and Pam James, presented a check to Saint Catherine Center in memory of Katherine Schlegel. Pictured with Center participants: Gus, Eve, Ryan, and Natalie.

When Elena (Peters) and Stephen Schlegel lost their 20-year-old daughter Katherine in the fall of 2018, 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.”


PB&J Days at the Academy: A Role for Everyone

FAIRFIELD—Every third Friday morning you’ll find a lively group of students and staff from Saint Catherine Academy and volunteers from the Order of Malta engaged in a signature project: the creation of 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport. 

“This is a project that provides a sense of purpose in multiple ways,” says Helen Burland, executive director, who proposed the community service idea—called “PB&J Fridays”—shortly after she came to Saint Catherine Center. “Our students are on the receiving end of so much service and generosity. We wanted them to experience the joy of giving back as well,” commented Burland. The Order of Malta was a willing partner, as it promotes hands-on involvement in the organizations that they support. Four or five volunteers from the order currently participate each month. The Center has even had guest “chefs,” including Bishop Caggiano.     
Read more and see photos …


“Patience, a Sense of Humor, and a Loving Heart”:  A Typical Day at Saint Catherine Center’s Adult Program

Fall 2018         On any particular day in the Adult Day Program at Saint Catherine Center, what you’ll notice is a sense of purposeful activity—and beneath that, a feeling of warmth and respect.

“Consistency and a calm atmosphere are key to having a ‘great day’,” notes Brenda DeMattio, Director. “A lot of factors go into maintaining that—starting with staff. Patience, a sense of humor, and a loving heart are required—all things you can’t teach. Our staff work really well together. They are awesome.”

The Day Begins

Staff arrive by 7:30 a.m. to review the day’s schedule and coordinate transportation runs for the day. Five vans, two of which are wheelchair-equipped, head out each morning with two staff to pick-up sites in Westport, Weston, Trumbull, Bridgeport, and Fairfield.

How the day is spent depends on each participant’s Individual Plan (“IP”), which is developed and reviewed every six months with their parent or guardian. Staff are assigned to participants on a rotating basis. Schedules are created in 15-minute to one-hour blocks. To build skills and maintain variety, time is balanced as much as possible between individual, small group, and large group activities. The first hour is usually spent getting settled and personal care goals, such as brushing hair and teeth. Ms. Yvonne, the nurse, is available to dispense medication or assist with any physical issues.

Wellness and Vocational Activities

Then, on a rotating schedule, some individuals go straight to the work-out room to spend time on the treadmill, stationary bike, or stretching. Others will be in the project room practicing sorting, packing, or shredding, among other activities—all transferable vocational skills. Others will make use of the kitchen and Life Skills Apartment to practice setting a table, emptying the dishwasher, or making the bed. Those who are able have some choice over what activity they want to do.

“There’s a lot of care-giving, but it’s not ‘custodial’. Our young adults are engaged—in whatever way they can be,” Brenda says.

Working Together

In addition to each participant’s goals, socializing and learning to work together are important benefits of the program at Saint Catherine. Whether it’s preparing lunch alongside each other, collecting the mail, or preparing the garden boxes for planting, teamwork is encouraged. There is usually a role of some sort for everyone to play. Staff work one-on-one with those who need it. For others, staff help to stimulate interaction.

Physical activity is important. In weekly music sessions with “Mr. Matt,” participants have the opportunity to express themselves, singing songs together, dancing, and playing drums. Another regular program, Theaterworks, engages participants to play roles in familiar stories. This fall, we will be offering some gentle yoga.

Offsite activities every week include bowling and swimming (followed by a pizza lunch!). A few of our participants volunteer at local sites, such as Gilbertie’s Herb Farm and Marshall’s, where they perform simple tasks. Regular outings to the petting zoo at Silverman’s Farm, a picnic at Sherwood Island, and other activities help our young adults adjust to new settings and enjoy each other’s company. (See our Facebook page!)

“The day is pretty much non-stop. The structure and a ‘Plan B’ gives us flexibility to go-with-the-flow if there’s a change in the schedule, or someone is having a hard time,” says Brenda.

To communicate with parents, each participant has a notebook where staff writes down highlights, concerns, or reminders. Parents can respond with notes of their own.

Around 2:30, after lunch and relaxation—such as a good game of Wii bowling—some parents begin arriving for pick-up, and staff bring the vans around for the others’ return trip home. The day is almost done—except for Brenda and Sonia Vielot, the Assistant Director, who put together the next day’s schedules.

Not every day at the Center is a “great” day, but there are usually great moments in each, revealed in small and large ways. As Lori Leskin, a Center parent, says, “Sami loves going out to the van each morning, peering in to see who is there to pick her up—usually with a big smile on her face. As a mother of a non-verbal child, seeing that smile on her face is extremely comforting, assuring me that she is happy to be on her way.”

And so we begin again, each day.


“Oh, What a Night!”

June 2018     The Annual “Joy and Gratitude” Dinner on June 10th at Fairfield University was hugely successful, attracting nearly 300 guests and raising over $300,000 in much-needed support for Center programs. (View the photos!)

The combination of a great Silent Auction, a unique array of Live Auction experiences, and the generosity of so many donors who raised their hands in the Call to Charity contributed to the event’s success. Funds raised in the Call to Charity will support the development of vocational and social enterprise opportunities for students and adult day participants.

Three individuals were recognized for their contributions of time and talent to Saint Catherine: the late Dan Caruso (Community Service); Eileen Blees (Volunteer Service) for facilitating gym class at the Academy the past 10 years; and Michael LaBella (Leadership), for his contribution as a Board member.

“It was a great evening in every aspect—the size of the gathering, the quality of the auctions and, of course, the guests,” noted Charles Chiusano, Chairman of the Board. “The food was excellent, and the results are a godsend!”

Guests enjoyed the relaxed, summertime atmosphere. Numerous attendees said the event was “the best one ever” for the Center. “This event is like a family reunion for a great cause,” said one guest. “I get to relax, catch up with friends, and support this wonderful organization at the same time.”

A special Thank You to all our Dinner Sponsors: Britta and Denis Nayden; GoldPoint Partners; Knights of Columbus Supreme Office; Dian Jennings Mayo; AEA; CrossBay Capital Partners, LLC; St. Aloysius Parish; St. Rose of Lima Parish; TD Bank, N.A.; and all our Table Patrons.

We also thank Kelly Weldon and the Dinner Committee for all their help and enthusiasm!

View more photos!



Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Spring 2018            Spring was definitely in the air for our “Cinco de Mayo” dinner dance Friday, May 4, at St. Pius Church in Fairfield. Our guests came from all over the Diocese for the popular event, which offers adults with special needs a fun, free evening together “out on the town”—dinner, socializing, and dancing included.

“I get to be with my friends tonight and I love it,” said Patrick, a participant in the Center’s adult day program.

The lovely paper flower centerpieces, created by Saint Catherine Academy students, were enjoyed by all. Once again, we thank our gracious group of teen volunteers from St. Andrews in Bridgeport for being our servers, and our outstanding DJ, Herb Ramirez.

Hosted three times a year by the Center, the Dinner Dance attracts more than 100 guests and is a much-anticipated event. If you would like to volunteer or help underwrite costs, please contact us at 203-540-5381, or