Katie is in her early 30s. Because of her developmental disabilities, she is nonverbal. She wears a diaper, and requires supervision when she eats. She cannot bathe herself and is prone to aggression when she gets frustrated. She can walk independently, but it’s a good idea to bring a wheelchair for outings — at any time she might decide not to walk any further.
When Katie aged out of the school system, her parents — Beverly Beisgen and Henry Kacprzyk — were faced with the challenge of finding a way to care for her. A teacher suggested McGuire Memorial in New Brighton, PA — a Felician ministry grounded in compassion. For the last ten years, Katie has been thriving in one of McGuire’s community homes. She has her own room in a four-person house overseen by McGuire staff, and she takes part in an enriching day program with regular outings.
Katie’s mother appreciates the upbeat approach to care at McGuire. “From the beginning, they would tell us, ‘Katie has a great sense of humor,’ or ‘Katie is so smart.’ They always had something positive to say.”
Beisgen recognizes that the sisters, with their commitment to treating every person with dignity, set the tone at McGuire. From 1990-2019, Sr. Mary Thaddeus Markelewicz, who retired as president and CEO, was responsible for creating the climate of loving inclusion that distinguishes McGuire. A radical woman of the gospel, Sr. Thaddeus was a visionary leader who served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by recognizing the fullness of their human dignity. “The train is leaving the station,” she used to tell her staff, encouraging them to get on board as she worked to increase programming and opportunities for those served. Her approach had a ripple effect on everyone in the organization. “She could only have been led by something bigger and greater than her,” says Dr. Rita Zaborowska, who served in many roles, including chief operating officer, in her 25-year career at McGuire.
The Felician Sisters opened McGuire to meet a need, focusing on caring for the children of mothers without resources, regardless of race, creed, cultural background or ability to pay. Today, McGuire provides comprehensive and compassionate care to individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, including complex medical conditions. A residential program, a licensed school, two adult day programs and satellite community homes educate, care and advocate for those who need it most.
Clockwise: Kayla Jewell; Kayla McGinnis runs the field with McGuire staff; Howard Pyburn with McGuire staff Georgette Butcher and Brooke Graff; Jackie Drakos, Logan McGinnis and Chrissie Drakos; Dan Deane hugs McGuire staff Amy Prisuta.
Rather than “merely” giving care, though, McGuire creates a family spirit, where staff and caregivers support each person to overcome challenges and live fully. Hallways and program rooms are filled with colorful art. A bright and spacious greenhouse has a round activity table at wheelchair height, a stunning array of plants and lively turtles in a tank. The nature trail, named St. Francis Way, is wide enough for wheelchairs and has platforms where clients and caregivers can take in a panoramic view of rural Beaver County, including bird feeders and water features.
The chapel at McGuire easily accommodates 15 wheelchairs for Mass. With the help of Fr. William Gillum, a Capuchin friar and priest with a master’s in special education, Sr. Thaddeus cared for the spiritual and sacramental needs of the individuals at McGuire, initiating a sensory-based program of teaching and worship that allows individuals with severe intellectual and physical disabilities to experience the sacred. “She believed in fullness and wholeness of life for the person with the most severe disabilities,” says Zaborowska.
Sr. Mary Cabrini Procopio, who enjoys attending Mass at McGuire, observes that though some of the individuals might be noisy or inattentive during Mass, “When it comes time for reception of the sacrament, you know that they know something is happening.”
“Society looks at our individuals as a burden,” says Daniel Stadnik, director of community homes for McGuire. “But that is such a wrong notion. They are here to raise us all up.” Stadnik understands that working at McGuire means overturning conventional notions of “success,” living by the Felician core value of solidarity with those in need and realizing that those with the least power are the ones who can lead the way to holiness. No one in society has more need than those vulnerable individuals who must rely on others to help them breathe, eat, communicate or use the toilet. Solidarity with these individuals means resisting the lure of independence and strength in a culture that tends to overlook or marginalize the least powerful.
Stadnik oversees the private residential living program that was part of Sr. Thaddeus’s radical vision. Situated throughout Beaver and Lawrence Counties in western Pennsylvania, the community homes offer the gift of independence for individuals with mild to severe disabilities. Most importantly, with a maximum of four individuals per home, residents enjoy living in a supportive family setting, where they experience independence and also receive the support they need.
“The best parts of me come out working with the people we serve,” says Stadnik. Whether solving a complex issue or simply feeding someone a meal, Stadnik knows that his work directly impacts the people he serves — and helps him to find the best aspects of himself. He reflects on the Felician influence at McGuire, noting that the sisters set the tone.
“The presence of the Felician Sisters, whether they are in the building or not, makes everyone want to be their best,” he says. “No one gives more of themselves than they do. And because they hold themselves to the highest standard, they raise all of us up.” He says, “They are like an angel on your shoulder all the time.”
Melvin Steadman with Sr. Shannon Fox.
Sr. Grace Marie Spera, mission leader at McGuire, has a slightly different view. “The individuals we serve are angels,” she says. “And our staff cares for them with respect, dignity and compassion.”
Either way, McGuire’s radical overturning of societal expectations about those with special needs creates a space where staff, clients and families thrive.