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

The Power of One (Part 1, 1991)


Terri Vandercook , at the time of this 1991 article, was Director of Inclusive Education Programs at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota

In 1988, the second issue of the new newsletter Impact introduced its readers to Catherine, a fourth-grader with Rett syndrome, and her best friends Jessica, Julie and Amy. Together the girls shared Catherine’s move into full inclusion in the life of her school, an experience that enriched not only Catherine’s life, but that of the entire school family. The 1991 Impact article below revisits that earlier story and the unexpected power of one young girl to touch lives.

Dear Friend,Thank you for helping me in my life and for comforting my family in my death. Remember what I have taught you. I love you. Good Bye, Catherine

The above was a note received by some of Catherine’s closest friends after her death on December 15, 1989. Catherine may have touched your life previously through Cath, Jess, Jules, and Ames… A Story of Friendship featured in the Fall 1988 Impact, or through “The McGill Action Planning System (MAPS): A Strategy for Building the Vision” which highlighted Catherine’s MAPS session and was published in the Fall 1989 issue of JASH. This article, The Power of One, provides yet another demonstration of how this one small 10-year-old girl has exerted great power and influence over so many people. It is a tribute and thank you to Catherine, as well as a reminder and challenge to all of us that as individuals, each of us has the power to make a positive difference in our world.

I first met Catherine when her team was working to more fully include her as a member of a third grade class in the school she attended. The team’s approach had been primarily what has been referred to as “the teacher deals approach” (i.e., establishing a relationship with classroom teachers and striking deals to gain access to general education classrooms and activities for a child with disabilities). Toward the end of that school year, Catherine’s team made a decision to use the MAPS process to more systematically increase her involvement in the third grade classroom. The MAPS planning provided a very hopeful and positive beginning, but following that initial planning and subsequent implementation, the expectations and vision of Catherine’s team greatly expanded. The majority of Catherine’s team members concurred that her needs were not being most appropriately met by a model of “partial” membership in the general education classroom. The memory of Diane, Catherine’s mom, placing a copy of Bob Perske’s Circle of Friends book in the center of the table and quietly saying, “This is what Catherine needs and what I want most for her” remains very vivid in my mind.

On September 4, 1989, Catherine began life as a fourth grader at Cherokee Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota (you could see the school’s flagpole from her bedroom window). On December 15,1989 she left this world as we know it.

The rest of this story illustrates how in four short months, Catherine deeply touched the lives of many children and adults in her new school community. Following are excerpts from letters that Catherine’s classmates wrote to her on the day that she died, as well as a note to Catherine’s family from the parent of one of her classmates and from her teacher:

  • I think you should know that I am so sad that you left me and the class. – Chris
  • I did not want to end this right at this moment. I feel terrible and all of us are sad. It will not be the same without you. – Derek
  • We are all going to miss you. You touched our lives and we touched your life. – Chris
  • You meant a lot to me and all the kids in this class. Some of the kids let out their feelings by crying. We all will miss you. Amanda
  • I miss you very much. I’m in grief with others in my class. You will be remembered always in my heart. You will be remembered always. I cared about you a lot in my heart. – Jolene
  • We really loved you and we wish you were still here with us today. I hope you could just come back with a snap of someone’s fingers. – David
  • You meant a lot to me and I’m grateful to you. I really love you. I’m glad you had the chance to be with us. We are all going to miss you but most of all I will. I liked to see you rocking in your chair listening to Anne Murray. I love you!! – Sara
  • On the first day of school I saw you and thought you were really pretty. I was hoping you were gonna be in my class. Today’s been one of the saddest days of my life. – Heather
  • I bet everyone liked you in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. I bet if everyone met you they would like you too. I’m sorry that you died. You were a sweet girl, you never bothered anyone. I will always remember you Catherine, you gave me something to think about. I really, really miss you Catherine. I don’t know how you got Rett syndrome, but I sure wanted you to get better. – Amanda
  • We really miss you and hope you’re back. We liked you to be with us. We’re going to miss you. Everybody wants you to be back. You make us happy. Our life is empty without you in your chair at school. – Sarnol
  • We care so much about you. I hope you had a good time with us. Cause I had the time of my life with you. – Sherrie
  • I wish you were still here cause now I can’t see a nice person like you in the morning cause when I saw you I’d smile. But now I can’t. Catherine is a shining rose, looks as pretty as a rose and smells like one too and always will. – Elizabeth
  • We will miss you a lot and we all have sadness for you because we had the friendship and we all love you and we wish you were back again. – Hun
  • Everyone is crying and saying things won’t be the same with you gone. We won’t be the same. You gave us a lot. You gave us respect for handicapped people, love for others, and showing people you don’t need words to make friends. – Karen

And from the parent of one of Catherine’s classmates:

Every day if Jolene were to tell me a story about school, it was about Catherine. She said, “Mom, everybody loves Catherine.” I cannot tell you about any of the other kids in Jolene and Catherine’s class. Jolene only spoke of Catherine. On Friday Jolene told me her last Catherine story. While I only met your daughter once, I felt I knew her well. Jolene’ s class was truly special and chosen to have Catherine. Jolene and her class gained a great deal from Catherine. You had a truly special child. She will be greatly missed.– Jill

And, lastly, from Catherine’s fourth grade teacher:

If the worth of a person’s life is judged by the effect they had on others, Catherine’s presence will be felt for a lifetime in the hearts of many people. I speak not only for me but all the children she came in contact with. She fostered a deep caring and love, but maybe a longer lasting effect will be the understanding and compassion in the hearts and minds of everyone who came in contact with her. She, more than any other student I’ve ever had, belonged to not just you alone, but to everyone who came in contact with her and who loved her. – Gwen

Illustrated here is “the power of the powerless.” Catherine did not possess power in the traditional sense of the word, but it cannot be denied that she had a positive and powerful influence over those who knew her. There is a lot of discussion in the educational community these days about outcome-based education. One of the seven outcomes specified in Minnesota’s proposed outcome-based graduation rule is “to understand diversity and the interdependence of people.” Listen again to the things that Karen credited Catherine with having given to her classmates: “respect for handicapped people, love for others, and showing you don’t need words to make friends.” Those words indicate more than an understanding of diversity and interdependence. To me, they demonstrate a celebration of diversity and interdependence! There will be some graduation outcomes that can be learned from a book, there will be others that must be experienced. Those who shared school life with Catherine experienced an educational opportunity as of yet not available to all.

Dear Catherine, Thank you for helping me in my life. You provided such a joyous and hopeful vision of children learning together. You asked me not to forget what you taught me. Don’t worry little friend, the lessons you taught were very powerful. I’ll not forget! I love you. Good Bye, Terri