January 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Helping children with disabilities reflects teacher’s focus on faith

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton students Gwynie Falcone, left, Jackie Clemente, Addi Guiley and Allison Hamilton deliver fruit baskets to senior citizens at a nearby apartment complex in Richmond before Christmas. (Submitted photo)

Jennifer Fisher Kelly shares a smile with one of her students during a computer exercise at St. Anthony of Padua School in Clarksville. The student service teacher is known for her commitment to her students with special needs. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Parents long for their child to have a teacher who cares for him or her—and then strives to bring out the best in their child.

It’s a longing that may be even stronger for parents whose child struggles with a disability.

So the letter that a parent wrote in support of Jennifer Fisher Kelly says so much about the student service teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School in Clarksville.

“[Our son] is dyslexic. He is far behind his peers in reading,” noted the mom in her letter. “Most kids in his position have given up. I credit his hard work and willingness to go to school, even though it seemed impossible some days, to Jennifer Kelly. We could never repay her for the never-ending encouragement she has given our whole family. She was the best advocate we could ever hope for in our journey.”

Kelly’s commitment to students with dyslexia, autism and other learning and developmental disabilities led to her becoming a finalist for the 2018 Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award, the highest honor for a Catholic educator in the archdiocese.

It’s a commitment that has its roots in a friendship from her days as a student at St. Anthony School and nearby Our Lady of Providence High School—a commitment that now extends to making a Catholic education possible for children with disabilities.

“I had a very good friend who attended K-12 with me who really struggled in school,” she notes. “Those struggles made him dislike school more and more every year. During our senior year, he was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities. He excelled in college where he took advantage of support services and teachers.

“I often wondered what my friend’s school experience would have been like had there been more awareness of learning differences and programs in place to meet different needs.

“His story always stuck with me. Once I decided in college that I wanted to be a special educator, I knew that I wanted to do so in a Catholic school at some point. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to support children’s needs with the Christian environment that their families have chosen for them.” †

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