Impact Feature Issue on Stories of Advocacy, Stories of Change from People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Allies (1988-2013)

Reflections on “The Power of One” (Part 2, 2013)


Terri Vandercook is Associate Professor and Chair in the Special Education and Gifted Education Department, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She may be reached at 651/962-4389 or

Diane Kastner , Catherine’s mother, lives in St. Paul.

Catherine’s mother, Diane Kastner, and Terri Vandercook, author of the 1991 Impact article, “The Power of One,” share the following thoughts as they look back today on the ways that Catherine made a lasting difference in so many lives.

The experience of Catherine’s inclusion 24 years ago continues to speak to us personally today. As an educator what I learned from Catherine and her team has been a primary source of energy and conviction to continue to advocate, teach, and live in a way that supports the development of inclusive communities where diversity is celebrated and seen as a source of strength. Those who share a belief in all people being included in our communities know that this is work that requires a tremendous amount of perseverance. Whenever a sense of despair has begun to creep into my mind regarding the hard work of creating and sustaining inclusive communities, I look at one of the large pictures of Catherine that I have on the wall in my office and I remember the joyous and hopeful vision of Catherine with her classmates and friends and my promise to not forget what she taught me. I want all children to learn respect for people, love for others, and an understanding that you do not need words to make friends. There are individuals, some with identified disabilities, and some without, who have the power to teach these lessons. My experience has been that individuals with more significant disabilities are often gifted in this area, perhaps because in order to be in a relationship with someone who does not communicate in the typical way, you must slow down and be more present and intentional in your interactions.

As Catherine’s mom, “forever” is my word for Catherine and all her experiences with family and friends, especially those friends 24 years ago at Cherokee Park School, visible from her bedroom window. I will never forget her classmate, Karen, saying that Catherine taught her respect for handicapped people, love for others, and showing others you don’t need words to make friends. Jolene told her that her laughs would be remembered in her heart. Chris said Catherine would be in everybody “forever” just like his Great Grand Pa. Kimberly said Catherine was her best friend in the whole class and she loved watching her. One day Catherine grabbed her pencil. That was a big day that will last forever! Bryan was grateful to Catherine for showing him that everybody is a human being even if you have a disease or not. He said she smiled at him all the time. She cheered everybody up. Catherine spoke with her eyes and the language was love and I hope it has gone on “forever”! I think Catherine taught others not to just accept difference, but to value difference, and to realize that we are all beautiful.

When reading The Power of One, you can’t help but be amazed and touched by the deep feeling and incredible learning illustrated in the quotes from children and adults in her school community. Catherine had a positive influence on each child in the classroom – not just the “easy, sweet” kids, but also those who were “rough and tumble.” Fifteen years after Catherine’s death, some of her former classmates were asked how being in a relationship with Catherine continued to influence them as adults. Their words tell the story:

  • Well, I just think that we learned more from having her there than anything else. I mean, we learned how to associate with people with disabilities or help them or just accept them. And that’s what they need. They don’t need people staring at them and being, like “Oh, you don’t belong here."
  • I think that being that young, nine or ten, and having been introduced to someone with those disabilities, that you’re just definitely more accepting for the rest of your life.
  • I think for sure just the acceptance of people. All people, and not judging. And they may seem limited, but like if you really get to know them, they’re not, in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways, they will teach you to be a better person. I think that’s for sure the number one thing.

We learn many things in school, but none are more important than the learning represented in the quotes from the time of Catherine’s death and those that affirm this learning 15 years later.