FORT WAYNE — The “Community of Christ” at St. Vincent de Paul School has been living the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “For it is in giving that we receive,” all year long for the last four-and-a-half years thanks to student Cash Reuille, who happens to have Down syndrome. Cash, a fifth grader this year, has been in an inclusion program at St. Vincent School since first grade. Many gifts such as love, patience, forgiveness and acceptance have been exchanged between him and peers of his age.
Missy Reuille, Cash’s mother, conveys, “My heart is filled with such joy that Cash has been given the gift of a Catholic education even though he has different abilities. Who would have thought 11 years ago when he was born, that he would be included in a great school and receive his first Reconciliation and first Holy Communion with his classmates? Cash beams with joy each time after going to Confession and receiving the Body of Christ!”
Reuille gives credit to the Holy Spirit for guiding them on this path from the very beginning in 2008 at St. Vincent’s.
She says, “Every time a rough patch occurred, God always sent a light to guide our way. I am so thankful for all the supportive parents, teachers, administrators and of course, his peers, his friends.”
It is hard to explain how having a special needs child involved in a Catholic school setting and a member of the parish family can touch so many lives, and tear down walls. Reuille believes, “Disability is a perception and children seem to be so flexible and accepting in general, so they are constantly teaching the adults valuable life changing lessons.”
Fifth-grade friend Catie Hamrick recently said, “When I first saw him in first grade, I wasn’t sure about him. I didn’t understand why he looked different. I was a little afraid. I had never met anyone with Down syndrome before. The teacher read books and we talked about how God makes each of us unique. Then, I guess I thought of him as just another kid in the class. I was really happy when he asked us to go to the Buddy Walk. I didn’t know that there were so many kids with special needs like Cash! I am happy to know Cash and be his friend.”
A good friend, Rachel Siela, says, “Teachers would sit Cash and me next to each other because they knew I enjoyed helping him. Cash has changed my life because I would never know how great it was to help others. I hope we will be in class together next year and that we will continue to be good friends for a long time. When I grow up, I think I might want to work with children with disabilities because of my experience and love for Cash.”
Another classmate and friend, Erin Strzelecki and her family said, “Cash is so friendly and such a great example of how to be a nice person to everyone — no matter who you are! He is such a perfect example of how God wants us to love everyone all the time!”
Parents Frank and Heather Strzelecki echo the appreciation saying, “Having Cash around our kids is a blessing. Back when we were young, special needs kids were looked at as ‘different’ and ‘judged’ and it wasn’t until we got older that we did learn how special these kids are! How awesome it is to teach our kids at a young age that kids with special needs are just like you and me. And, how much they teach us along the way about how simple life is … just love everyone without judging!”
Reuille sees Cash’s inclusion at the school as opening doors for many. She says, “Children, of many grades, and their families have been very supportive and accepting of Cash. The only disability in life is a bad attitude, because a bad attitude affects and means everything when it comes to everyday life activities. So, the children and adults at St. Vincent that have opened their hearts and befriended Cash are helping tear down walls. They see that children with different abilities, like Cash, are more alike than different.”
Children with special needs who are included in regular education programs make so many more gains than if they were placed in a self-contained special education class with all special needs peers. The gains are reciprocal for their peers without disabilities. The heart changing, unique lessons the peers without disabilities learn are as important as the lessons a child with special needs learns.
Catholic schools are serving more and more children with mild to moderate special needs.
As Mary Lynn Hamrick, Catie’s mother says, “More than 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted. Because of our faith’s pro-life message, many of the babies that survive are born into Catholic families. Children with special needs are gifts from God. These children are among us for a reason and it is dependent upon us to find out what that is. If these children are absent from our schools, our children miss out on the unique opportunity to learn from these special kids about how to be more patient, more tolerant and more appreciative of their own God-given abilities.”
This IS where the giving and receiving begins.
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