QUINCY -- What's been a mission for Jill Reffett is igniting a way to help promote the importance of inclusion in Catholic education in Quincy and beyond.
Reffett, who has two daughters with Down Syndrome, is one of the founders of the Quincy-based Faith and Inclusive Religious Education, or FIRE, Foundation of Central Illinois.
"We're just really trying to bring awareness to the fact that students being included with their peers both in school and in society is beneficial for everybody," Reffett said.
"We have several students in local parochial schools, children with disabilities who are included with their typical peers. What we find is there's not enough funding to always help with resources these students need through the current channels for the parochial schools."
So FIRE -- the second affiliate of the FIRE Foundation of Kansas City, a nationally-recognized successful model for supporting inclusive learning -- will focus primarily on building awareness and fundraising.
While the effort starts in Quincy's parochial schools, "our hope is to grow to the entire Diocese of Springfield," Reffett said.
Possibilities include funding training for educators, providing paraprofessionals to help individual students and making available modification and accessibility resources. A child who thrives with visual learning for math might need additional resources "that for the school would be a stretch to reach out and get," Reffett said. "It can be very individualized to each school, each child and each classroom."
Forty years ago, Reffett said a statement by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops said parochial schools need to lead the way on inclusion of people with disabilities, and it's work FIRE wants to continue.
"We definitely have the opportunity within the Catholic school system to be having this conversation in a stronger way and really showing how you can make this change without a detrimental impact," Reffett said.
Reffett already sees positive things happening in the parochial schools, including Blessed Sacrament Catholic School where her daughters RayLee, 9, and Mila, 7, are included in classroom and school activities with typically-developing peers including their sister Sophie, 8.
Blessed Sacrament Principal Christie Dickens said a grant two years ago from the Tracy Family Foundation allowed staff members to tour schools working with FIRE in Kansas City and attend two different conferences focused on inclusive education. Based on what she saw happening in Kansas City, FIRE offers "a lot of hope" to provide support schools need.
"We can have the terrific mindset of our staff, but ultimately it reaches a point where it does require specified personnel with special education supports and backgrounds and paraeducators," she said. "One of the most exciting possibilities out of the Fire Foundation would be some real opportunity to get those supports in our schools that we know could make an amazing difference. We have incredible teachers with the mindset is every child can learn. Our responsibility is to figure out how to make that happen. We will welcome that additional support when it's possible."
Beyond what happens in the classroom is the potential impact on families, who may have to make tough choices based on what's available and what's not available in Catholic schools.
"Probably the best thing about it is a parent who has a child with some identified disability and also wants them to have a faith-based education, then the door is opening for that," Dickens said.
Seven people, volunteers called "highly focused" by Reffett, have worked to launch FIRE, and more help is needed to support the effort by both friends and funders.
"You have to have friends passionate about the mission, understand the mission. Those who can't write a check are as important as those who can," Reffett said.
"Often people look at us like we're talking pie in the sky, but FIRE of Kansas City is a perfect example of a lot of mothers ahead of us focused on making this work and the benefits to their children of inclusion," Reffett said. "We're really at a place where we won't settle for less."
IF YOU GO
The FIRE Foundation of Central Illinois will hold its inaugural event, "Ignite the FIRE," at 7:30 p.m. Monday to kick off National Down Syndrome Month.
"Ignite the FIRE" is a screening of the documentary "Intelligent Lives," narrated by Chris Cooper, and the community is invited to learn more about education inclusion.
Seats are available at both the Quincy Mall and Quincy Showcase 6 Theaters.
Tickets are $12 and must be purchased in advance at gathr.us.
"190 free tickets are available to Quincy area Catholic educators through the generosity of the Quincy Medical Group Healthcare Foundation and an anonymous Catholic advocate," said Jill Reffett, one of the foundation's founders. "We hope educators, parents and anyone who loves a special needs child will join us."
The movie's trailer and more information about Catholic inclusion is available on Facebook at FIRE Foundation of Central Illinois.