(Reprinted from Fairfield County Catholic- Pat Hennessy)
When James Barry stepped off the bus on the opening day of school at St. Catherine Academy on August 30, 1999, he was the first student to be welcomed into the new school. With his graduation on June 8, his years at St. Catherine’s came to fulfillment.
St. Catherine’s is the only Catholic school in Connecticut for children with special needs. “Our program begins with a strong emphasis on academics, and through the years that percentage reduces to make time for vocational skill development,” says Helen Burland, St. Catherine’s executive director.
James, who has Downs syndrome, reflected recently on his years at St. Catherine’s. “Math is my best subject,” he says of the academic program. “I’m a math whiz. That and history. I love history.”
Classes at St. Catherine Academy have led to a life-long love of learning. James became a devoted follower of the History Channel, building an even wider knowledge of the recent and ancient past. “James excelled in this subject area,” says Burland.
While a strong academic program is central, St. Catherine’s focuses on preparing students with special needs for life, ranging far beyond academic subjects. The curriculum meets each individual at their own level and works on developing the life lessons needed for independence and, when students need it, development of social and interpersonal skills.
That last item is one James definitely never lacked. “he’s a happy-go-lucky fellow, always pulling jokes,” says Sister Cheryl Driscoll, RSM, his language arts teacher. “And he’s very, very kind to other students.”
Brian Farrell, director of education at St. Catherine’s agrees. “He goes out of his way to welcome new students,’ he says. “His ability to bring everybody together makes him a leader for the school.”
As James describes his path from kindergartener to young adulthood at St. Catherine Academy, the school’s plan of overall development becomes clear. Over the years, the vocational skill development has taken an increasingly important role. Functional academics emphasize reading and math – lessons on timesheets and money management. “Academics are always part of the curriculum, but emphasis shifts to the vocational component,” explains James’ homeroom teacher, Joanne LaPorta.
The vocational program develops job skills and also job habits – workplace behavior, dress, attitude. “James likes to work,” says LaPorta. “He’s conscientious and focused on his job. In every work situation, he learns exactly what he’s expected to do.”
In the last few years, James has worked at Taco Loco Restaurant in Black Rock, potted plants at Gilbertie’s Herb Farm in Westport, served lunch to the kids at Caroline House in Bridgeport, and worked on boxes and bows at Bigelow Tea Co. Fulfillment Center in Fairfield. “We balance the experiences to give them a variety of experience,” says Burland.
His favorite location was at Fairfield University food service, where he worked in salad prep and set up tables in the cafeteria. “I like the kids there,” says the gregarious James. As he looks past graduation, this is one of the employment opportunities he would most enjoy. As a Catholic school, academics and life skills both include instruction in the faith. James received the sacrament of Confirmation from Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at the bishop’s first Mass for Children with Disabilities, celebrated at Holy Cross Church, which is adjacent to St. Catherine Academy.
Putting faith into action, James has participated enthusiastically in the “Peanut Butter and Jelly Project.” Once a month students make sandwiches for the guests at Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport. Other service projects included sending cards to veterans and helping with the Town of Fairfield’s 350 Years celebration, among others.
James has played many different roles over the years in the Christmas pageant: Joseph (several times). Jesus as an adult, one of the Three Kings. He actively participated in the school’s weekly prayer service, and learned American Sign language to become the signer for “This Little Light of Mine” in all school liturgies.
James planned his graduation Mass, picking the readings, petitions, readers and songs. Msgr. Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown and chaplain of St. Catherine’s, celebrated the Mass in Holy Cross Church.
St. Catherine Academy is now part of the St. Catherine Center for Special Needs, which includes pastoral care in parishes and support for Catholic schools. St. Catherine added an adult program, in which James may enroll.
When he looks back on his years at St. Catherine’s, at the Halloween parties, St. Patrick’s Day floats, field trips and fun (he swam in CT Special Olympics medaling in both backstroke and breast stroke), struggles and challenges, one thing has consistently meant the most to James.
“It’s my friends,” he says. “My friends and my family and my teachers. That’s what’s most important.”