By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
On a sunny, cold afternoon Jan. 19 St. Mary’s Center students were busy singing and playing instruments in a music class, learning math and pedaling exercise bikes in a small work-out room.
Special needs adults and teens have been coming to St. Mary’s Center in Middletown for 25 years. The center, located at 14207 Aiken Road, celebrated its silver anniversary Jan. 10.
Ursuline Sister Regina Marie Bevelacqua and Mary Jo Payne, who are co-founders of the center, said 25 years ago they heard from parents who were worried their special needs children were becoming “depressed and reclusive” following graduation from high school. The parents were looking for continuing education and for a place where their children could have “quality” days, said Payne and Sister Bevelacqua, who operate the school along with Dominican Sister of Peace Judy Morris.
Out of this need, St. Mary’s Center was born, they said.
St. Mary’s offers a full day of activities Monday through Friday for adults and teens, typically ranging in age from 17 to 64, though its oldest student now is 72-years-old, said Payne. The program offers continuing education in math, language, computer and vocational training.
The center offers a host of other activities, such as arts and crafts, music and dancing, health and wellness classes, gardening and sewing. Individuals who come to St. Mary’s are also active in sports. The center recently unveiled a full- scale gymnasium — one of several locations where the 25th St. Mary’s Basketball Invitational Tournament will be hosted the first weekend in February.
Sister Bevelacqua believes the tournament is the largest of its kind for special needs individuals in Kentucky. Forty-five teams from Kentucky and Indiana usually take part.
St. Mary’s students also have the opportunity to participate in Special Olympics — two students will represent the center in Seattle, Wash., for the Special Olympics USA Games this summer, said Sister Bevelacqua, who has coached Special Olympics teams for more than 50 years.
The students want to be a part of the community and they want to form friendships, said Payne. The center, she noted, helps them to do that.
“The idea of forming close relationships and being accepted is a vital human need and they get it here,” said Payne. “It enhances the quality of life.”
Both Sister Bevelacqua and Payne said they’ve seen friendships blossom and witnessed how the higher functioning students help their friends.
“They’re not helpless, they help each other,” said Payne.
The center also puts special needs individuals in touch with the community, they said. Throughout the year, students have the opportunity to attend plays, go to the circus and visit the state fair. Those involved in square dancing — one of the center’s offerings — take their act on the road. They perform for elderly residents around town and travel out of town to attend dance conventions. Students from the center will travel to Jacksonville, Fla., later this year to attend a square dancing convention, said Payne.
These opportunities fullfil the center’s mission — to allow special needs individuals to “have a role in life,” Payne noted.
After 25 years and all the center has accomplished, Sister Bevelacqua and Payne said they feel like they’re “still creating.” When the center opened its doors in 1993, they did so with three students in the Ursuline Sisters’ administration office. The center moved into an old Methodist Church in Middletown shortly after and remained there until 2014, when it relocated to Aiken Road. St. Mary’s now has an enrollment of 70 students and serves between 35 and 45 individuals on a daily basis.
Sister Bevelacqua and Payne have the same dream for St. Mary’s Center — that it will grow into a residential home. Sister Bevelacqua said she envisions little cottages for students where she would be able to live among them and help care for them, she said. They know it will take some time, but it’s possible, they said.
The center on Aiken Road sits on five acres of land that was donated to them. It took a community effort to build the new center, they said. And the community continues to step up. The center recently received three donated vans and is currently looking for volunteers who can do maintenance work on them.
To learn more about St. Mary’s, call 254-7298.