by Jessica Langdon
LEAWOOD — When the call came for students at Nativity Parish School here to support people with Down syndrome, they answered in a huge way — raising $3,350 for the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City.
“A ton of that money was coins that we counted because kids emptied piggy banks,” said Maureen Hogan, student services coordinator at Nativity. “That was extraordinary.”
What’s also extraordinary to her is the way it’s just natural for the students, parents, faculty and others at Nativity to reach out.
They do it every day.
Not because they see a need — but because they see a friend.
A friend like Kathryn Embry, an eighth-grader, who leads a fierce game of four square and embraces opportunities to act, dance and give presentations. (She was recently preparing one for science class on Thomas Edison.)
“Kathryn just makes every day way more fun,” said her best friend and fellow eighth-grader Emily Kramer.
And they see a friend like Jordan Locke, who is in the third grade, who comes to the rescue on the playground in the role of one of his favorite superheroes, usually Batman or Spider-Man.
“He’s funny and he’s really nice,” said his friend Lacey Hunter, also a third-grader.
Kathryn and Jordan both have Down syndrome. And on Oct. 21, both Nativity students took their places on the stage — to thundering applause from the whole school — to help present the money the school had raised to Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City and First Downs for Down Syndrome.
The assembly and the donation were Nativity’s way of recognizing Down Syndrome Awareness Month, which is celebrated nationally in October.
“I really believe we have a lot of kids in this building who would be really, really hard-pressed to explain to you or tell you what real big differences there are between them and Jordan or Kathryn,” said Hogan.
‘Make it work’
Hogan remembers going to observe Kathryn as a preschooler years ago when Kathryn was just getting ready to start school.
Church of the Nativity is the family’s parish, and so Kathryn’s mom wanted this to be her daughter’s school.
“It just never occurred to any of us that we wouldn’t make it work — of course we would make it work,” said Hogan.
Today, Nativity serves students who have a variety of special needs, whether those needs are visible or something the eye can’t see.
Nativity partners with the Blue Valley School District for some of its students who have special needs, said Hogan, and the students have a team of people working toward their success.
Having them in a Catholic school just makes so much sense to her.
“The kids are a gift to us,” said Hogan. “There’s no better way for us to teach our kids to see the face of Christ in everybody.”
Hogan’s already preparing herself for what she knows will be an emotional moment: Kathryn — along with her classmates — will graduate this year.
“We’re going to miss her,” said Barb Burgoon, middle school religion teacher, looking ahead to Kathryn’s graduation.
“She brings this spark of life to my fifth-hour science,” said Angela Kopp, Kathryn’s science teacher and mother of one of her classmates.
It’s no secret that Kopp is her favorite teacher — Kathryn calls her by the nickname “B.T.” — for “Best Teacher.”
“She’s very social,” said Kopp with a smile.
“Sassy,” added Stephanie Fournier, Kathryn’s English language arts teacher.
But it is not only the teachers who appreciate Kathryn’s boundless enthusiasm.
Kathryn and her friends have been together since kindergarten.
“These are the most true friendships you’ve ever seen,” said Fournier of Kathryn’s class.
Hogan loves to see the way Kathryn and her friends link arms and laugh walking through the hallways.
“It’s definitely a calling,” she said, “and it’s definitely part of our mission — to educate kids with special needs.
“But the bigger calling is to make sure that they have opportunities for genuine lifelong relationships with people — and that is something that happens in this community.”
So the mission only starts in the classroom — and continues at sleepovers, movies, and get-togethers with friends.
“Kathryn doesn’t just have school friends at school, and Jordan doesn’t just have school friends at school,” said Hogan.
They play sports on the regular school teams, and Kathryn and Emily have camped together for the past few years at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg.
Kathryn even tried the zip line this past year.
“It’s scary at first because you’re afraid you’d fall,” said Kathryn.
“But you didn’t!” said Emily.
Kathryn’s friends always have her back, just as she has theirs.
“I’ve never had to ever ask one of them to help her with anything, nor have I ever had to ask Kathryn to help somebody else,” said Fournier. “She is also the one who steps in.”
Emily describes Kathryn’s annual pool party for her birthday as “the best party of the year.”
The eighth-graders this year donated money for students with special needs at a school in Guatemala instead of bringing gifts.
Jordan’s birthday coincides with a classmate’s, and the other child’s family surprised his family by throwing a party for both boys last year.
Jordan came to Nativity at the very end of his first-grade year from a public school in Missouri.
When they first inquired about enrolling Jordan, his parents John and Cindy Locke were assured by Nativity principal Dr. Maureen Huppe that the school was familiar with Down syndrome, and that everyone would welcome Jordan.
And even with just six weeks remaining in that school year, they wanted him to start right away to make the transition as seamless as possible.
Within 48 hours of his arrival, an email went out to the whole staff and Jordan’s parents, a gesture that really impressed the Lockes.
Cindy will never forget watching Bill Powers, who teaches middle school math, hold out his hand and introduce himself to Jordan in the crosswalk during Jordan’s first week.
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Powers. “I’m going to be your eighth-grade teacher.”
The school even invited in the Down Syndrome Guild to educate Jordan’s new classmates on what it’s like for him to go through a school day.
The students tried on big mitts so they could picture what it feels like when Jordan writes, said Cindy.
They took steps with weights on their legs so they could feel how he might get tired.
And they impressed the representative from the guild with their questions, said Cindy.
“She’s never seen kids that young be so interested in ‘What can we do to help Jordan?’ instead of asking, ‘Why is it this way?’” she said.
The students are quick to step in, whether it’s to help tie a shoe or to open something.
“I’ve never had to ask them to help him,” said Susan May, Jordan’s third-grade teacher. It’s always natural, and it comes from a friendship, not from the idea of taking care of him, she said.
Jordan reads well, but loves to settle down for Drop Everything and Read time with friends — and they love reading with him.
Lacey is happy to play superheroes.
“He usually chooses for me,” she said. “He just tells me, and I don’t care.”
She can’t imagine her school without Jordan.
Third-grader Matt Theisen agrees, thinking of a funny moment as the class recently got to know its new gecko.
“We were talking about how our gecko can lose its tail,” explained Matt.
And when their teacher asked what Jordan was having for lunch that day, he answered, “Spaghetti with a hint of lizard tail!”
Administrators and students alike are always receptive to hearing new ways to help Jordan learn.
“They’re all interested in doing whatever they can to help Kathryn and Jordan succeed in whatever way,” said Cindy.
The Lockes have since joined Church of the Nativity, transitioning from their previous parish on the Missouri side.
“Our feeling was we wanted him to be fully immersed, so we wanted to be fully immersed,” said John, and so Nativity is now their parish.
One of his favorite memories is of Jordan’s first Communion.
“Was there a dry eye in the house?” said John. “What was really huge was that our family was here, and they got to see the impact that Nativity has had on Jordan.”
‘Part of the family’
Kathryn is getting ready for confirmation this year. She’s chosen Bernadette as her confirmation name, and her older brother Luke as her sponsor.
Luke was also the subject of a speech Kathryn gave on a very important person in her life.
“One of the things she said was, ‘I love him because he believes I can do anything,’” said Burgoon. “And those were her words.”
They’re words that people at Nativity wholeheartedly believe as well.
Lisa Hamrick, a paraprofessional who works with students who have a variety of needs at Nativity, worked with Kathryn extensively before Kathryn began middle school.
She has no worries that Kathryn — a sweet and outgoing girl — will soar when she goes out into the world.
And she’s enjoying watching Jordan now build his wings at Nativity, where he fits in so perfectly.
“They’re just part of the family,” said Hamrick.