Who could blame Susie Fieder Kelly for not recognizing God’s voice calling her through the 1981 parish bulletin? After all, she was a brand spankin’ new member of St. Gregory the Great parish and had little experience with “God speak.” Besides, she had just finished her master’s degree in special education: learning disabilities, from Cardinal Stritch College her life was suddenly less hectic, and besides, she just found a comfortable spot in the pew.
“I didn’t grow up in this parish so I was not one of the frozen chosen,” she said, laughing. “No one knew me, and I didn’t know them and it was just fine with me.”
The first time it happened, Kelly was sitting in her pew and reading the Sunday bulletin. Like a magnet, her eye caught an ad that said, “Help needed with special religious education program.” As soon as she returned home, she tossed the bulletin in the trash, convinced that this ad was designed to somehow taunt her.
“I felt very personal with that,” she joked. “The next Sunday it was in the bulletin again and of course, I threw it away again.”
After the ad made it to the bulletin for the third time, Kelly began to identify with Samuel and nearly felt inclined to respond, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Instead, she phoned the church and inquired about the job.
The position entailed assisting the woman who ran the special religious ed program in existence since 1957. Classes met Saturday mornings and Kelly’s job was to help the coordinator/teacher work with the four to five special needs students.
While the teacher did a great job with the students, Kelly’s experience was that not all students learned at the same pace, especially in a more abstract subject as religion. She was also interested in reaching out to special needs adults who had not been instructed in Catholicism or received the sacraments. The following summer she took a class in special religious education curriculum to learn more about teaching methods, and suddenly another path unfolded that would absorb 30 years of her life.
“The coordinator decided to retire and I interviewed for her position,” said Kelly. “I explained what I would do differently and she offered me the job. At first I wanted to scream that I didn’t know anything about this, but then as I worked to individualize the program for kids, teens and adults, and a parent support group, the program began to fall into place.”
Using traditional materials and adapting each to the personal needs of the students, Kelly designed the program to rely on volunteer catechists to work with students on a one-to-one basis. Rather than focusing on the student’s disability, catechists learned to look for the strengths of each student and adapt materials for individual learning. The program was so successful that other parishes wanted to enroll their students in the St. Gregory the Great program.
“At first, St. Gregory paid for everything, and then in 1992, we decided to collaborate with other parishes to financially support the program as well as to help in supplying volunteers for the program,” she said. “We renamed the program ARISE, which stands for Association for Religious Instruction Special Education and includes St. Rita, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. James, Holy Assumption, St. Augustine and St. Alphonsus parishes.”
The mission of the ARISE program is to provide quality religious education for parish children, teens and adults who are challenged with disabilities. ARISE serves students with varying degrees of learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and emotional disabilities, including but not limited to Down syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, Autism Spectrum and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Classes meet on Monday nights from October through May, with individualized instruction for children and teens. Adults meet in a small group setting taking courses similar to a college setting; it is another way Kelly goes out of her way to ensure each individual is treated with dignity.
“I wanted to set this up so the adults didn’t feel like they were going to class like the children, so they begin classes a little later on Monday evenings,” she explained. “I sent out fliers with a choice of three course offerings. They pick out the one they want for each semester. It works very well. We also have some involved in the RCIA program, and that has been very successful.”
After 30 years of juggling the ARISE program with her vocation as a wife to husband Jack, mother of three children, and working fulltime for Milwaukee Public Schools as a substitute teacher, and the School to Work Transition Program, Kelly retired May 2, from her position at St. Gregory the Great.
Mandi Bottomley, a member of St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee, has been hired to coordinate the ARISE program.
“I have been thinking about this for a couple of years,” Kelly admitted. “I knew I didn’t want to do this until I was very old. I am in my 50s now – I just have the desire to do something else, try another area of ministry, and while it is very hard to let go of this program, it is time for me to work in the background and let someone else be in charge.”
Despite her decision, leaving the ARISE program is difficult for Kelly, who has written countless grants to fund educational materials, worked side-by-side with long-term catechists, and, of course, the many special needs students ingrained on her heart.
“The volunteers have been fantastic over the years,” she said. “I respect them completely. It is a big commitment to be there every Monday night and some have been with me more than 15 years. I have grown very attached to the families and the students and will miss not seeing them every week. Of course, I will probably pop my head in there now and then to see if they need any help – I’m not sure if I can stay completely away.”
Kelly’s hard work was rewarded each year through the shining eyes of students making their first reconciliation, first Communion and confirmation.
“Seeing their faces and how happy they are brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “Some of these parents thought their child would never have the sacraments and we may have helped it happen. You can really see the face of Jesus in our ARISE students’ faces. Now we know what God looks like as we are all created in the image and likeness of Christ.”
For St. Gregory the Great parishioners Cheryl and Kevin Stanke, having a program for their 14-year-old son, Daniel, who has Down syndrome, has brought him closer to God than they ever thought possible.
“I cannot say enough about the program or Susie,” said Cheryl. “She is so compassionate, kind and caring and goes out of her way to organize and arrange things to fit our schedules and whatever we want or need – she makes it happen.”
In April, Daniel made his first reconciliation after four years in the program.
“She accomplishes amazing things and has a calling from God for them – everything is always for the kids,” she said. “Daniel loves her so much; we had a closing program on May 2, and the deacon asked us to raise our right hands to bless Susie. Daniel stood right by her side; he adores her, she is just a fantastic person.”
While St. Gregory the Great parishioners Kathy and John Konetz are confident the next ARISE coordinator will do a wonderful job, it is too soon to think of Kelly’s replacement without shedding a few tears. Their son Andrew, 14, has attended the program for the past eight years and has thrived with the one-on-one attention from the catechist who has been with him from the beginning.
“Andrew is autistic; we are a Catholic family and have two other kids who have gone through the sacraments and we wanted him to learn about God and the sacraments. Because of the program, he has been able to receive the sacraments of holy Communion and reconciliation.”
Thanks to the compassionate and gentle guidance of Kelly and the volunteers, Andrew knows how to make the sign of the cross, has learned his prayers and is able to participate in Mass more often.
“This program has been super for him,” said Kathy, choking back tears. “She has such dedication, is compassionate, kind, and most of all patient. The kids all love her and shower her with hugs when they see her. Susie will be greatly missed and I think she will miss all of the kids too.”
Special students taken under wing of ‘special’ woman