Morning Star brings brighter futures to students with special needs

When Mary Kelly gave birth to her first child, a baby girl named Stephanie, doctors told her the newborn would have no chance at a normal life.

“We were told to forget about her,” Kelly said. “That [we should] institutionalize her.”

It was 1972, and Stephanie was born with Down syndrome.

Kelly and her husband refused doctors’ advice and brought their daughter home. When Stephanie reached school age, they discovered Morning Star Catholic School in College Park. Inside its walls, Kelly said, they found hope.

Back then, Morning Star catered exclusively to children with Down syndrome. Today the school serves students of all “unique abilities,” and Kelly works as the school’s director of community partnerships and events. Meanwhile, Stephanie, after graduating from Morning Star, worked at the College Park Publix for 15 years.

“So many parents were told early on that their child would be very limited in what they could do, but being pushed and challenged, they’re finding that their children are so much more capable of doing so many other things that they never expected,” Kelly said.

“And that’s one of things that we as a school do … really challenge the students and push them to do things their parents didn’t think they could do.”

Kelly said since she first got involved with the school 41 years ago, she’s seen students go on to get married, live on their own and hold down long-term jobs.

Principal Sandra Cooney said the school currently has 60 students ranging in age from 5 to 22, all with different needs and abilities. After age 22, students can transfer into the school’s transition program that teaches independent living skills to help them ease into the real world.

“We run our school as a school. The students have classes, just at their level,” Cooney said. “And in-between all that they get the therapies and the opportunities to do job training and all of the other things they need to live as independently as they can when they get to that age.”

Like at any other school, students gossip and fret over dates for prom, which is May 5.

“As we gather together to begin our morning, it’s total chatter. It’s wonderful,” Cooney said. “It’s almost like they have their own language.”

“They do everything that any other student would,” Kelly added.

But there are extraordinary elements of the Morning Star campus too — like the nurses’ office telemedicine station with a line straight to doctors at Nemours and the commercial kitchen where students learn how to cook for themselves.

Morning Star students work together in the school garden.

Morning Star students work together in the school garden.

And outside, there’s a chicken coop surrounded by an expansive edible garden.

The garden is run by Jennifer Waxman-Loyd and Adam Wright of Seed2Source, an Orlando-based sustainable agriculture consulting firm. The pair help students pick the fruits of their labor from the garden beds and teach them which parts of the plants they can eat.

Gardening, Waxman-Loyd said, can be therapeutic and educational by teaching lessons of nutrition, physical wellness and self-sufficiency.

“You’re more willing to eat vegetables if you grow them yourself,” she said.

And Kelly said she has watched firsthand as students dug into meals made up of vegetables that hours earlier they weren’t even sure how to pronounce the names of.

Morning Star students proudly share produce from the school garden.

Morning Star students proudly share produce from the school garden.

“Things parents said their children would never eat, they’re eating,” Kelly said.

Pushing students to overcome expectations and to learn and work independently to the best of their ability, Kelly said, is what Morning Star is all about. She watched it happen in her own family through her daughter Stephanie.

“We found Morning Star School, and this was a perfect fit. And [Stephanie’s] come a long way,” Kelly said. “And that’s the story that I can say for most of the students that have gone through here.”

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