St. William School community makes inclusion a priority, bands together to support Anastasia and Katie's Coffee Shop & Cafe

WALLED LAKE — When parents of children with special needs are looking for a Catholic school for their child, one school’s name comes up often: St. William Catholic School in Walled Lake. 

The K-8 school enrolls just 115 children, yet it has blossomed into a place where students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cognitive delays and autism thrive. Two full-time teachers and eight part-time paraprofessionals staff St. William School’s learning center, assisting the 12 students who make up the special needs program.

Principal Linda Jackson says the school can’t meet the needs of every child whose family is seeking an alternative to public or other private schools, but the staff has been able to do more than they first thought possible. 

“I think our program shows that it is possible to do this, and there are resources out there for other schools that want to try,” Jackson said.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s call in Unleash the Gospel inspired her.

The second grade class at St. William Catholic School collected the most money during the school’s annual Catholic Schools Week Coin Drive. This year’s proceeds went to Anastasia & Katie’s Coffee Shop & Cafe, named after sixth grade St. William student Anastasia Rockwell. The coffee shop will open in Livonia in May.

“It’s what he was telling us: We have to make room in our schools, not just for the elite students, but for those who don’t fit into the boxes we create, those who are different or present a challenge,” Jackson said. “We can’t serve everyone, but we need to serve more than we have been.”

School administration didn’t aim to become a destination for special needs families. Twelve years ago, the program began with one girl who has Down syndrome and whose older brothers were already St. William students. Within a few years, word got out that the program was working, and as more families inquired, the learning center staff grew to meet their needs.

St. William special needs students are integrated into as many traditional classes as possible, typically going to the learning center for reading and math. The other students consider their friends in the special needs program the same as any other classmate.

“Our kids don’t see these students as any different — they see them as just ‘one of the kids,’” Jackson said. “They’re part of the class and the school as much as anyone else. We have kids with speech problems who cantor at Mass, and even if we can’t understand them perfectly, nobody cares. They do everything the other kids do.”

The rest of St. William’s families rally around those whose children face the challenges of special needs. In January, the student body raised more than $1,300 to support a new endeavor for fellow student Anastasia Rockwell, a sixth grader with Down syndrome. Anastasia will have her name on a new coffee shop in Livonia, Anastasia & Katie’s Coffee Shop & Café, the first business initiative for the 501(c)3 nonprofit, Mi Work Matters.

Anastasia’s mother, Kelly Rockwell, is a co-founder of Mi Work Matters, a nonprofit that seeks to help people with developmental disabilities find meaningful work. Rockwell is also a member of the State of Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council.

St. William Catholic School Learning Center Consultant Tammy Alber, second from right, works with students Connor Maxfield, Anastasia Rockwell and Lydia Alexandrowski (left to right). Twelve special needs students attend the small school in Walled Lake.

“Our hope is that we make a space that’s supportive and welcoming to people with developmental disabilities, and that we can hire and give them a paycheck,” Rockwell said. “There’s a need for that.”

A Mi Work Matters press release states, “Outstanding coffee, delicious food and fresh, new employment opportunities for the differently-abled make Livonia’s Anastasia and Katie’s Coffee Shop & Café a welcome addition to the community.”

The coffee shop's other namesake, Katie Duffy, is a friend of Anastasia's through their Down syndrome support group whose father also is involved in Mi Work Matters. 

Rockwell was touched by the St. William community’s gesture to raise money during the annual Catholic Schools Week coin drive.

“One of the parents approached me and asked if (the coffee shop) could be the benefactor of the coin drive,” Rockwell said. “One mom even told me her daughter opened up her piggy bank and gave all of it to the coin drive because she knows Anastasia and wants to help.”

Anastasia started at St. William last year, as a fifth grader. Her mother heard about the school from a friend when she and her husband were seeking another school for their daughter.

“My number one priority for Anastasia’s education was to give her a good education academically while also having her in an inclusive environment,” Rockwell said. “St. William had both.”

Anastasia integrated well to the new environment.

Two full-time consultants teach in the Learning Resource Center at St. William Catholic School, along with eight part-time paraprofessionals. Special needs students spend as much of the day as possible in their traditional classrooms and are assisted by learning specialists in areas where one-on-one attention is required.

“She really likes it because she feels appreciated and included,” Rockwell said. “St. William families are very welcoming and very loving.”

How do the special needs children impact the rest of the student body at St. William? Jackson says it’s “their normal,” and a place where children of all different abilities learn side-by-side.

“Maybe these kids will be the very people who grow up to open businesses and hire Down syndrome employees,” Jackson said. 

Rockwell hopes Anastasia & Katie’s Coffee Shop will achieve the same end with its patrons, helping them see the often untapped potential of people with developmental disabilities. She hopes to build relationships with area businesses, showing them this special group of individuals are capable, willing to work, and eager to put their gifts into action.

Anastasia & Katie’s Coffee Shop & Café will open in May at 19215 Merrimack Road in Livonia. 

More information

For information about Mi Work Matters, visit www.miworkmatters.org. For coffee shop details, click on the “coffee shop” tab at the top, and visit the Facebook page for updates. To learn how to help Mi Work Matters, including a shoe drive and other fundraisers, go to the “events” tab.


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