After attending the graduation ceremony of Holy Family Academy in Manchester, NH, Christopher asked the question, “Why can’t I go there?” The reason was clear, you are totally blind, you have autism, you would need support services that are costly. There would be few, if any teachers trained in special education, plus, the academics are rigorous, above your comprehension level. Months later I would discover that they had changed their admissions policy, they were open to each and every student that came through the door. I had nothing to lose, why not show them how Christopher learns and talk about the possibility of him entering 8th grade?

After our hour-long meeting, we all decided it was worth venturing into. With mom at his side (as a temporary paraprofessional of sorts), Christopher began his journey and Holy Family Academy began its adventure, admitting the first blind student into its school.

This experience awakened a calling, to not only advocate for inclusive education, but to make it a reality by funding teachers, paraeducators and other needs. The first step in doing this was to transform our existing non-profit of Know Greater Love Ministries into the Fire Foundation of NH. After much research, the best way was to become an affiliate of the FIRE Foundation of Kansas City, MO.

It was in the Kansas City diocese that six families decided to also do something about the education for their children with special needs, wanting them to attend Catholic schools with their siblings. They founded the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (FIRE) and raised the needed funds that enabled three of the children to attend their parish elementary school. That was in 1996, today they have invested over $5 million in inclusive education and we carry their torch into NH.

The inclusion experience with Christopher was messy, difficult and all consuming at times.  What mattered most was that every day my son shined in who he was.  He had the opportunity to attend catholic school like his siblings.  He impacted the school with his talents, with his humor and most importantly, with the example of perseverance.  He did not let his blindness, nor autism define him, rather he showed how he does things differently.  We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and through this, Christopher showed others that he too was just as valuable. 

Christopher’s educational needs at the school came at a huge price.  Unfortunately, cost is the biggest barrier to inclusive education.  It is the goal of FIRE NH to raise the funding needed, so no student is excluded due to cost.  I hope you will consider joining me as FIRE NH grows to eliminate both the financial and heart barriers.  Together, we can build inclusive environments in our NH Catholic schools.  Together, we will open hearts to a richer education that says “all are welcome”. 

Thank you for reading this far and learning about this exciting, vital mission.

Together, we can make this happen, thank you,

Christine Duffley

FIRE Foundation of NH

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Fire Foundation of NH is pleased to be an affiliate of Fire Foundation in Kansas City, MO