St. Michael Special School in New Orleans, Louisiana is dedicated to providing a unique Catholic education to students aged six through adulthood with mild to moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, ADHD, developmental delay, Down Syndrome, traumatic brain injury, multiple disabilities, and other health impairments. Opened in 1965, the school is a leader in Special Education, providing integral formation of the whole child – a balance of academic, physical, emotional, and spiritual development that helps all students grow in their faith and reach their full potential. Besides daily prayer and religion classes, students attend weekly Mass in the St. Teresa Chapel, and also have the opportunity to prepare for and receive their sacraments during the school year.
As Head of School since July of 2020, Dr. Cissy Laforge is responsible for everything from facilities to finance and development, as well as daily contact with staff and faculty. And she is particularly passionate about Catholic education and the children she serves. “The students, hands down, are my favourite thing about working at St. Michael,” says Cissy. “They are a true reflection of all things good in our world – they are joyful, kind, authentic, sincere, sweet, loving… you name any good quality, and they have an abundance of it!”
And at St. Michael, it’s these students who set the tone: one of complete joy. Everything is celebrated with delight and gratitude: the new vending machine has its own ribbon-cutting, and the baseball pep rally ends with a jubilant rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Cissy shares one particular story that illustrates the attitude encouragement and joy that reigns at St. Michael School:
“At St. Michael, we celebrate small things and big things – we enjoy each other and life in general, and the kids delight in each other’s accomplishments. For example, I was in a class one day and the teacher asked a question, and student after student did not have the correct answer. When one student answered correctly, his friend turned to him and said, ‘You did great! I am so proud of you for knowing that!’ They were 16-year-old boys!”
St. Michael Special School is a unique educational experience in a world where inclusion of those with developmental disabilities into a normative setting is the trend. Instead, St. Michael takes the opposite approach – students are encouraged to be front and center in a space designed especially for them. This unique methodology is a response to the needs of the families who, Cissy explains, come to the school often in a state of hopelessness, and even despair. “These families have typically experienced so much trauma – their kids have been neglected or pushed to the side. St. Michael is a community: a learning community for the students, and a welcoming community for the parents. Our students experience everything they would in a typical school, but here, they are encouraged to hold all the positions – they are student council reps, on teams, in clubs, and on stage. We help our students become as independent as possible and build their confidence so that they can become the people God intended them to be.”
St. Michael Special School only charges a fraction of what it costs to educate a child. Each student’s tuition is subsidized about $10,000 per year, and the school fundraises 1.6-1.8 million dollars a year just to keep the facility running and the staff and faculty paid.
This is where the Legionary priests and Lumen members and family from a variety of communities come in. Every year for the past ten years, the group travels to New Orleans to take on projects on campus that the school has neither the funds nor the personnel to complete. This year, at the end of October, 15 missionaries from Calgary joined 20 others from Chicago, Tulsa, and Washington, DC, including Legionary priests Fr. Michael Sliney, Fr. Michael O’Connor, and Fr. Daniel Wilson, organized by Lumen member, Kent Wang.
The weekend mission began with dinner on Thursday night. Organizers always order much more food than is necessary, so that there is plenty left over to be boxed up as meals and distributed immediately to people experiencing homelessness in New Orleans’ French Quarter. (You can watch Lumen family member, Daisy Overmyer, explain the supper mission on YouTube here.) Friday began at St. Michael Special School with Mass. This was followed by a tour of the school, including the bedroom where St. Teresa of Calcutta herself spent the night when the school was still a convent! Then, the dads got to work to complete the projects the school had lined up for them, while the daughters spent the day in the classrooms and on the playground with the students. In the evening, the school families joined the group for jambalaya that they had prepared and both the school parents and missionaries shared testimonies about their experiences at St. Michael School, which is always one of the highlights of the weekend, says Cissy: “The dinner and conversation is a time for our families to enjoy the company and interacting with people who are genuinely interested in their stories – the Lumen families talk about their experiences with our students, and the St. Michael families talk about life with intellectual and developmental disabilities and what the school means to them. It’s beautiful because people talk from their hearts.”
On Saturday, the missionaries partnered with the New Orleans Mission to bring a pop-up grocery store to an impoverished neighborhood, setting up tables with 10,000 lbs of groceries to come and get for free. The daughters accompanied the shoppers, and the dads and daughters even helped the residents carry their groceries home. When it suddenly started raining and the line-up of customers thinned, the group packed up the groceries and went door-to-door delivering them to the housing projects. The rain ended up being a blessing, as the missionaries were able to visit and deliver food to people who were shut-ins and too elderly or disabled to make it out to the pop-up grocery store. Lumen member, Fouad Arbid, explains the “pop up” grocery market here
The weekend mission ended with a closing Mass and a celebration Dinner Cruise on a steamboat.
After ten years, the students and staff of St. Michael Special School know Lumen well, and the students love having the group back year after year, and the group is already planning to go back October 19-22, 2023. To find out more about St. Michael Special School, visit their website at St. Michael Special School – New Orleans, LA. St. Michael depends on the generosity of others to fulfill its mission: you can give to St. Michael Special School through their website link found here .