Diocese ensures formation for people with special needs with help of longtime advocate

In an effort to ensure all individuals with special needs receive Sacramental preparation, Henry Fortier, Secretary of Education for the Diocese of Orlando, appointed Kathy Harding as Morning Star outreach coordinator in 2016. Her task was to tour all parishes and schools to assess Faith Formation programs. Before her retirement at the end of June, she will have visited all 91 parishes and 32 schools in the diocese—ensuring they have the necessary tools and instruction to journey with every student.

There are an estimated 200 individuals with special needs in the diocese and Harding hopes each of them becomes closer to God through the Sacraments. She began her ministry in parishes. While Harding discovered just two of them had religious education for students with special needs, she said, “It was a very enlightening experience and great to hear how all churches were welcoming to all children.”

Most individuals are able to be mainstreamed into standard classes and Harding noted there are tools available to help those who may be non-verbal or have other severe issues. Much of her work has been guiding directors of religious education to meet specific needs and challenges of this vulnerable population through peer minister support in the classroom, home programs, or specialized activities.

In her travels, a recurring theme for adults with disabilities was the desire to be integrated into their faith communities, so Harding is also raising awareness of the need to include these individuals in ministries such as greeting and altar serving. This is an area in which Harding has always strived. On a recent retreat for adults with special needs at San Pedro Spiritual Development Center in Winter Park, two of her former Morning Star students, siblings Chris and Adriana served as altar server and lector respectively. In fact, Chris has served under every bishop since Bishop Thomas Grady. Harding worked with Adriana since she was young, honing her love of reading.

Retreats like this are open to parents as well. Many residents of Bishop Grady Villas in St. Cloud, an assisted-living residence where adults with disabilities are able to thrive, participated in the day of faith to further their spiritual journeys. Several of them also serve at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in St. Cloud, as ushers, and as Knights of Columbus or on the Council of Catholic Women. Harding noted these opportunities are important to the spiritual development of every person.

Harding began working for Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, a school whose mission is to help children with intellectual disabilities meet their God-given potential, in 1974. Over the past 44 years, she has served as teacher, principal, president and finally outreach coordinator. Her committed care of these individuals sets her apart in a world that claims personal success is only achieved through money and fame.

Since childhood, God gave Harding a heart for those with special needs. As a child, she watched her mother teach the blind and her father serve on a hospital board for children with disabilities with whom she would play during his meetings. As a teacher in South Florida, she noticed a great need for more intense care of individuals with special needs. “The only special attention they received was to be taken from my room for 30 minutes for recess,” said Harding. “There really wasn’t any ‘established’ curriculum for these kids in 1973. I knew they were capable of doing quite a bit, but it took a lot of planning. I started looking to see who had any programs at all for children with special needs – and Morning Star was #1.” Harding pursued a master’s degree, then a doctoral degree. She also laid the ground work to guide transitional students, adults ages 18 to 28, toward independent living.

Harding compared Morning Star and the rest of the world to a record player. She explained, “The world spun at 78 rpms (rotations per minute), but when you stepped on the grounds at Morning Star – it slowed down to 33 rpms. I loved sitting on the swings in front of the classrooms and just listening to the kids talk,” she recalled. “The love they have for each other, the acceptance they have for everyone is truly something to see and shows Christ’s love through them.”

Reflecting on the world view over the past 50 years, Harding explained, “In the 70s parents were so grateful for a school that loved their child and took great care of them. Now persons with special needs are part of our world.”

Her time at Morning Star has left an indelible mark on the school as well as her own life. Anne Marie, the mother of Chris and Adriana, has known Harding for 25 years when she first taught her children at the ages of five and nine. When Chris first arrived at school, he was chosen non-verbal, meaning that he could speak, but chose not to do so. Within the year, Harding had him talking. Anne Marie said, “She has taught them, not just education, but life skills. She has shown them a spiritual direction, how to pray, sew and do crafts. She knows which each child likes and she incorporates it into their life in some way. She is a special soul. She has a special place in their lives.”

Harding acknowledges that she will “hands-down” miss the kids the most when she retires at the end of June. “They made me see Christ in them every day. They are the greatest gift God ever could have given me.”

To learn more about how a special needs child in your life can be prepared to receive the Sacraments, contact your local parish.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic – April 24, 2018