Katie Kasper, the board President of FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee, spoke to Milwaukee-area Catholic administrators and educators about her group’s mission in November. (Photo by Kristen Kubisiak)

A Catholic education is intended for everyone, but a number of families with children who have disabilities or special needs struggle to find a place in their local parish schools. Over the years, a variety of reasons have been offered to explain this unresolved issue, chiefly that resources are lacking to support diverse student learning needs, as is knowledge about where they might be found.

FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee would like to change that.

FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the inclusion of children with disabilities in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by uniting pastors, principals, families and donors to offer a faith-based education for all Catholic students, starting with those of greatest disability-related need.

“Many schools have the desire, but they don’t have the know-how or the funding,” said Katie Kasper, board President of FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee. “The goal of FIRE is really to gather those things up in one place and make them accessible for school leadership, with the belief that every student deserves Catholic education, and every Catholic family should be able to send all of their kids to Catholic school — children with disabilities learning alongside their siblings and peers.”

Formed in 2022, FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee is an affiliate of the similarly named organization located in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, which has granted Catholic partner schools more than $5 million in support of inclusion over its 25 years of existence.

Kasper, who has six children — including one who is disabled — noted the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has not been without inclusive programs. She pointed to St. Robert in Shorewood and Holy Family in Whitefish Bay as two schools that have established track records as inclusive education leaders, as well as Christ King and Divine Savior Holy Angels High School whose programs are growing.

“There’s no reason that a motivated school couldn’t be given the tools to do this kind of work and make it happen,” she said.

But first, schools have to learn that the tools are available. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee took a step to increase that awareness in November when Catholic school administrators and educators from across the diocese and beyond gathered to learn about ways to fund special education and considerations for programing.

At the meeting, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Ed Foy said that though Catholic schools have a rich history of being champions of marginalized people, children with special needs are one group that is underserved in society, in education and in Catholic schools.

“We are blessed with resources that other Catholic school leaders in other parts of the country wish they had, but too often we are not always taking advantage of those resources at hand,” Foy said. “If we can just raise that knowledge base, that’s a wonderful goal for us.”

Kasper, who was one of several presenters at the meeting, spoke about FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee and the resources her organization offers, including funding and consultative support to assist parishes and schools in providing inclusive education. Consulting services are free and available to all schools within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“We just opened the grant application period for our next school year,” Kasper said. Annual grants, which are funded entirely by private donors and stay in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, focus on one-to-one classroom support and other critical supplementary aids and services.

In its inaugural year, FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee has already provided support to special education programs in five schools. One of those schools is Christ King in Wauwatosa, led by Principal Grace Urbanski.

“Because of the FIRE Foundation, we have been able to welcome a student with Down syndrome into our K4 class,” Urbanski said. “This student has three older siblings in our school, so we are delighted the whole family can come to school together each day.”

Keeping families together is an important goal for FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee, and Christ King.

“We celebrate the family as the most fundamental building block of society; as much as possible, therefore, we want to keep siblings together in our Catholic school,” Urbanski said. “But it’s important not to romanticize the complexities of special needs — it is extremely expensive to prepare a safe and appropriate Catholic education for traditionally underserved students. The FIRE Foundation blesses Catholic schools by relieving some of the financial burden.”

Although there are many ways to support Catholic education, FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee is the only organization that focuses specifically on the mission of providing a Catholic education to children with disabilities. Kasper is able to tap into a knowledgeable board of directors, which includes longtime St. Robert School Principal Lauren Beckman, who established a successful integrated special needs program at the school that is still thriving today.

The immediate goals for FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee as it begins year two of operation are fairly simple and straightforward: increasing awareness and donations.

“If somebody approaches their pastor and says, ‘I really want my child enrolled in the school this year,’ I want that pastor or that family to know about FIRE Foundation,” Kasper said. “We’re an all-volunteer organization. We run very efficiently. Our goal is to put donations to work directly in the classrooms for the kids that we serve.”

For more information about FIRE Foundation of Milwaukee, visit firemke.org or email Katie Kasper at katiekasper@firemke.org.