By Brian D. Wallace
FAIRFIELD – “Grow where you’re planted,” said Helen Burland, retired executive director of the St. Catherine Center for Special Needs in Fairfield at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the expanded facility at 760 Tahmore Drive.
It was a moment of joy and gratitude as more than 200 guests, friends, students, faculty and family members gathered for the ceremony in front of the new addition, which will be used to serve students in St. Catherine Academy and the Adult Services program provided at the center.
The school, carved into the hillside across from Lake Mohegan, has shared the grounds with Holy Cross Parish since 2007. It serves young people and young adults of all faiths who are impacted with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“While the building is beautiful and exciting, it is the people that will bring this to life. All of us need to continue to work to provide authentic opportunities for these young people to showcase what they can do, not highlight what they can’t do,” said Burland who was praised by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano during the ceremony for her vision and leadership.
The expansion and remodeling doubled the size of the facility by adding 6,500 square feet , bringing the total to 12,700 square feet. It was made possible by the successful Building for the Future Campaign.
In the brief remarks before blessing the new facility, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano thanked all who supported the expansion and offered words of gratitude to Burland who oversaw the project until her retirement in June 2023.
“My friends, before I give the actual blessing, allow me just a few words of my own to say thanks to all those who allowed this miracle to happen in our midst and in a very special way, I want to thank you, Helen. Without you this would not have happened. You are truly a visionary, and you work out of your heart with true love for all the young people and the staff here. “
The bishop said he was impressed by the speed of construction and the beautify of the new addition which was completed in nine months.learning spaces that will provide real-world vocational experiences, flexible space for expanded evening and weekend social activities, and additional space for small group instruction, activities, and collaboration. It also include a new commercial kitchen, space for a hydroponics garden and a supportive environment to help students develop skills and build relationships with peers.
“It’s elegant and very functional, but in and of itself, it’s a testimony of that which powered it to be created in the first place, which is the love that so many people have for these young people. They deserve the very best, and today we are blessing the very best for them.”
The Bishop also thanked new executive director Laura Grozier, who welcomed the guests and introduced the speakers outside of the front entrance of the new building. “Laura, thank you for taking on the directorship of the center because it is in great hands– in your hands. And the future is very bright.”
Mike LaBella, Chairman of the St. Catherine Center Board of Directors, thanked Burland and Charles Chiusano, previous chairman of the board for his efforts to launch and guide the project. He also expressed his gratitude to Burland, and to the parishioners of Holy Cross who supported the project and were patient through the nine months of construction. He also thanked the architect and construction team for ensuring that everything went smoothly while looking out for the wellbeing of students.
The bishop concluded the program by offering this blessing, “Bless all who will use this center of learning and recreation, that they who come here may know the presence of Christ, experience the joy of his friendship, and always grow in his love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit God, forever and ever. Amen.”
The overall campus project also led to redesigned parking, storage spaces for adaptive devices and records to meet program compliance requirements, renovated areas to accommodate more exercise and daily living activities, and creation of a courtyard for outdoor classroom and contemplative activities.
The new center reflects the evolution of expectations of what young people with disabilities can accomplish and their place in the community. The addition was designed to incorporate advances in assistive technology, a comprehensive focus on wellness, and the need for meaningful, authentic experiences calls us to reimagine programming with an expanded footprint to create an appropriate, welcoming, and inspiring learning environment for all.
Recognizing the need for continuing support after completing a school program, the Adult Services Program was opened in 2015, offering opportunities in a supportive environment to develop skills and build relationships with peers. Through parish and community support, the Center encourages the spiritual growth and inclusion of people with disabilities in schools and parishes.
St. Catherine Center for Special Needs includes St. Catherine Academy, a state-approved, private special education school in Fairfield, serving students ages 5-22 of all faiths who are impacted with autism, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. It also includes the Adult Services Program, approved by the Department of Developmental Services, which offers opportunities for adults with disabilities to learn new skills and participate in vocational and community-based activities. The Center, founded in 1999, also serves as a resource for faith formation and inclusion for parishes throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport.