Joey, fourth from right, enjoys simply being part of the class.
Joey, fourth from right, enjoys simply being part of the class.
In July, Joey Loftis completed training as an altar server at Holy Family Church in Southeast Portland. It was a crowning moment for a 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome who has been searching for a faith and education home.

Joey entered Holy Family School in January and finished sixth grade in the spring. He started seventh grade this month. For the Loftis family, this summer was a time to gauge how well life is going for Joey.

“It’s just been absolutely fabulous,” says Jeanne Loftis, his mother.

Last term, moments after he stepped out of the car each morning, Holy Family students would call out, “Hey, Joe!” or “Good morning, Joey!” He sat with classmates at lunch and played with them at recess. At a talent show, he demonstrated a set of wrestling moves and the crowd went wild.

“They see him as Joey the person, not Joey the disability,” Jeanne says.

The family has worked on Joey’s case for a long time. Along the way, they helped educate local Catholics about students with disabilities. Their great desire was a Catholic education for their son.

He began at St. Thomas More School, where his siblings went. But by fifth grade, St. Thomas More officials recognized they did not have the expertise required.

Joey transferred to Jackson Middle School in Southwest Portland, a public school with a classroom for children with disabilities. There, he learned, but picked up undesirable habits he saw in his peers — hand flapping, rocking and worst of all, a drawing inward.

With parents Blair and Jeanne, Joey made several pilgrimages, one to Philadelphia in 2015 when Pope Francis was visiting, another to the Vatican for an event celebrating people with disabilities. In Rome, they met clergy who discussed how people like Joey are important in the church.

“We had an epiphany that it was important for us to find a place where we had a really good fit,” Jeanne says. They began visiting parishes with schools and were thrilled by Holy Family, where the focus is kindness.

Loretta Wiltgen, principal of Holy Family School, welcomed them and allowed Jeanne and Blair to visit with students. The couple gave a slide show about disabilities, explaining what Joey could and could not do.

The couple told students and staff that Down syndrome, sparked by a difference in the number of chromosomes, “causes a disability but is not an illness.” They explained that children with Down syndrome may not be academically the same as others, but can excel in other areas of intelligence, including memory, insight, creativity and cleverness.

The couple was honest, explaining how wonderful Joey is, but not avoiding the challenges he poses.

In the early weeks at Holy Family, he wandered off the school grounds for a moment, but Wiltgen saw him out the window and went to greet him and bring him back.

The family feared he’d be dismissed, but Wiltgen was not phased. He is just testing, she explained, as any middle school boy would do after transferring. “This school is going to love Joey and Joey is going to love the school,” Wiltgen said.

The prediction came true.

At Holy Family, Joey stopped the hand waving and rocking. He started talking more almost immediately.

“I am thankful that Joey has found a home at Holy Family. Inclusion is not easy,” says Liz Richard, the school’s special education teacher. “It takes the administration, teachers, the family, school community and the student himself all working together to create community and a meaningful learning environment for all. When that collaboration happens, though, everyone benefits.”

Teachers have thanked the family for sending Joey, saying he has been good for the school. Not only has Joey brought out kindness, but chances are his presence is driving academic improvement. It may be because teachers find new ways to explain material.

“SAT scores go up in schools with students who have a disability,” says Elizabeth Foraker, a California teacher who lectures on inclusive Catholic schools. Foraker is a mother of four, including a teen son with Down syndrome.

“When you are inclusive, you learn equity in an instinctive way,” Foraker says. Students in inclusive schools, she concludes, also have a special opportunity to learn how sacred and holy each person is.

Holiness comes in lots of packages. Joey, for example, does not hide how he feels. If he finds something dumb, he’ll say so. He’ll give bear hugs. He’ll flex his considerable biceps. His enthusiasm bubbles over. He does not compare himself to others and so inspires others to be themselves.

“There is no feeling sorry for Joey,” Jeanne says. “He is exactly the way God wanted him to be made.”

To help advance the situation, Blair and Jeanne founded Inclusive Education of Oregon, which offers lectures and workshops.

In May, the group heard from Christie Bonfiglio, a school psychologist from the University of Notre Dame. Bonfiglio told a group gathered at Central Catholic High School that inclusion is not just having students with disabilities in classrooms, but making them feel they are part of the community.

“Catholic schools are called to serve justly and inclusively to ensure success for all learners,” she said, explaining that fear is usually the main obstacle.

Joey hopes to attend Central Catholic in a few years. The high school has been welcoming students with learning differences and has laid ground work for kids with Down syndrome.

Joey is a fan of religion class, Mass and Pope Francis. Pope Francis likely would feel mutual regard.

“An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts,” the pope said at a 2015 forum on Catholic education.

Next month, the Loftis family will go to Rome for another conference on catechesis for persons with disabilities.