Anna Allen, a teacher’s aide with special needs who now works at St. Peter School on Capitol Hill as part of the Teaching Together program, assists third graders Liam Slater and Allie Johnson with their greeting cards. The students were making greeting cards for residents of the Mount Carmel House shelter. This was their “service day” project for Catholic Schools Week. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Anna Allen, a teacher’s aide with special needs who now works at St. Peter School on Capitol Hill as part of the Teaching Together program, assists third graders Liam Slater and Allie Johnson with their greeting cards. The students were making greeting cards for residents of the Mount Carmel House shelter. This was their “service day” project for Catholic Schools Week. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
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Anna Allen is a young Marylander with sandy brown hair and a passion for her faith. On Sundays she teaches kindergartners and first graders catechism at Ascension Catholic Church in Bowie. During the week, she enjoys playing video games and taking care of her two birds, three gerbils and a cat named Tigger. After completing her associate’s degree in early childhood development at Howard Community College, she dreams of opening her own small day care center. But for now she is one of two new aides at St. Peter School in Washington, as part of their new Teaching Together program that partners with Catholic Schools to employ adults with special needs.

The Teaching Together program began in a Catholic school in Atlanta, when Mary Forr, now a St. Peter’s middle school teacher, heard a coworker mention that her daughter with Down’s syndrome, Lani, was looking for a job. Forr, who had a sister with special needs who wanted to teach,  jumped at the chance to have Lani as her aide. When Forr moved to Washington, she took the program with her to a supportive Catholic school on Capitol Hill.

“I am especially grateful to have teachers on staff such as Mary Forr,” said St. Peter’s principal Jennifer Ketchum, who helped launch the program in January. “We also hope this serves as a good reminder of the dignity of life; that every individual is equally worthy in the eyes of God and should be treated as so.”

Anna Allen was born with a severe brain injury that could have caused her death. Her parents said that after each healing Mass they took her to, remarkable changes occurred that set her on a path of healing.

Now, Allen works part time in Michele Monk’s third grade class, helping the kids with crafts and teaching the occasional religion lesson, like a recent one on Thomas Aquinas. She enjoys the collaborative environment of working with Ms. Monk, whom she calls “one of the nicest teachers I’ve ever known,” as well as spending time with the children in a “Gospel-centered” place. “I just love the school,” said Allen. “The faith aspect – being able to share it with the children is very important.”

The other new addition to staff is Alex Pellegrino, a young man with an intellectual disability who helps Forr file papers, grade, and open class with prayer. Students high-five him in the hallway and eat lunch with him too, said Forr. “Each day I ask for volunteers to come eat lunch with him, and each day everyone’s hand is up,” she said. Eighth graders like Luca Militello appreciate the program, saying, “It’s great helping people who don’t always get enough attention from others, it’s a good thing that we’re doing this.”

For Forr, the presence of teachers with special needs provides the students “learning that we, the other teachers, in the school aren’t capable of teaching,” she said. Pellegrino’s example and cheerful demeanor provide a “shining light” for both her and the students, she said. In his few short weeks at the school, Pellegrino has already taught Forr to “slow down and learn to smile first, because that’s what he’s always doing,” she said.

However the best teacher she ever had, said Forr, was her older sister Marita, a Special Olympics athlete who taught her how to truly love others.  From Marita, “I learned so much about joy and suffering and responding to things that just happen to you in life,” she told the Catholic Standard. She referenced a quote from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which reads, “People with disabilities… live, more than the rest of us perhaps, in the shadow of the cross. And out of their experience they forge virtues like courage, patience, perseverance, compassion and sensitivity that should serve as an inspiration to all Christians.”

In her own life, Forr has learned “our faith is centered around love, and that people with special needs teach us how to love because they are more vulnerable and more open to loving others naturally,” she said.

The mission statement on Teaching Together blog reads: “where everyone’s gifts are used for the good of others.” To advance that goal, Mary Forr and her co-founder Megan Osterhout hope to raise money for salaries and expand the program to other schools so that more people like Allen and Pellegrino can find meaningful employment. “I think it would be beautiful if the majority of the Catholic schools in America could do something like this,” said Forr. Though many Catholic schools do not have the resources to educate special needs students, Ketchum noted that this program is one way Catholic schools can be more representative of the diversity of the body of Christ. 

Father Bill Byrne, the pastor of St. Peter Parish, feels “delighted that the Lord chose St. Peter’s school to begin this ministry,” he said. In his work as the Archdiocese of Washington’s secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns, he also oversees the archdiocesan Department of Special Needs Ministry, which on March 14 will hold its annual conference on Faith, Deafness and Disability, in addition to sponsoring other ministries that welcome and care for those with special needs. Like Forr, he believes that “people with special needs come with special gifts and make our whole experience richer by their presence.”