Special blessing

Frannie Ronan will compete in the Special Olympic USA Games this summer in Seattle. Photo: Stephen Brashear Frannie Ronan will compete in the Special Olympic USA Games this summer in Seattle. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Mike and Becky Ronan’s daughter Frannie is competing in the Special Olympic USA Games

When Mike and Becky Ronan were expecting their second daughter, they knew during the last trimester that the odds were 50-50 their child would be born with Down syndrome.

After Frannie arrived by Caesarean section, and while the medical staff was tending to Becky, the doctor called Mike over to see their newborn. “They pointed to the shape of her eyes and the space between her toes and her muscle tone, and they said all of these are telltale signs of Down syndrome,” Mike recalled.

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Mike and Becky Ronan are blessed with two daughters, Bella, left, and Frannie. Photo: Courtesy Becky Ronan

What happened next was “one of the most poignant moments” in their relationship, Mike said: “I remember Becky and I looked at each other and, almost immediately, we both, [with] tears in our eyes, smiled.” They knew “we’re in this together and it’s going to be perfect,” he said. “And it has been.”

Lifelong Catholics, the Ronans weren’t unfamiliar with Down syndrome — Becky’s older brother, Kevin, was born with the chromosomal condition. Their faith, Mike said, gave the couple “a really strong foundation to hear the news, roll with the news, adapt because of the news and not lose ourselves in what sometimes families do — they lose themselves in the sorrow of losing something they never had.”

The Ronans, members of St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Bellevue, have been surrounded by supportive family and friends as well as the local Down syndrome and Special Olympics communities. They received crucial early-intervention services from Kindering in Bellevue and have found inclusion and acceptance for Frannie at St. Madeleine Sophie School, where she just finished second grade.

“The way in which they have lived their commitment to Christian life in the context of especially their daughter, really is a blessed example of the heart of what [Pope] Francis is trying to illustrate for us” in his 2016 letter on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), said Father Jim Picton, pastor of St. Madeleine Sophie.

“Becky and I often say this,” Mike said: “Somebody had a plan when Frannie chose us to be her parents.”

First Communion, Special Olympics

This is a big year for 8-year-old Frannie.

She made her first Communion at St. Madeleine Sophie in May, wearing the same dress that her older sister, Bella, wore for her first Communion. And when the Special Olympics USA Games open in Seattle July 1, Frannie will be the youngest of the more than 4,000 athletes competing.

“It’s really fantastic to see how the archdiocese is behind the USA Games,” Becky said. (See box for more details.)

A gymnast, Frannie will compete in bars (her favorite), floor exercise, vault and balance beam, all taking place July 3–5 at Seattle Pacific University. The news that Frannie made the state team was announced at St. Madeleine Sophie in January, with the whole school turning out to surprise Frannie and her parents.

“Special Olympics is cool and fun,” Frannie said that day.

She joined Special Olympics last fall (8 is the minimum age), but started gymnastics about three years ago as a replacement for physical therapy sessions that began a few weeks after birth. “Most kids with Down syndrome need speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy,” Becky explained.

The Ronans, married 19 years, have taken the same approach with Frannie as they have with Bella: “Expose them to as many things as they want to do, and the only rule is you don’t quit until the end of the season,” Mike said. So besides gymnastics, Frannie has played T-ball and CYO soccer, and is taking piano lessons.

Frannie Ronan lost her first tooth during a St. Madeleine Sophie School Mass. Afterward, the tooth was blessed by Father Jim Picton, pastor of St. Madeleine Sophie Parish. Photo: Courtesy Becky Ronan

At school, reading and math are Frannie’s favorite subjects. “She aces almost every spelling test,” Becky notes — to which Frannie interjects: “Spell test, oh boy!” She’ll even spell out a word for her parents if they don’t understand what she’s saying.

Some of Frannie’s other loves are her big sister and music. “Bella … give me hugs because she’s the best sister,” Frannie said. The sisters like to sing together, especially songs from Annie and Frozen.

Frannie’s singing (her favorite church song is “Wade in the Water”) “is a reflection of the love that she’s come to know,” Father Picton said. He laughed when recalling how Frannie lost her first tooth at a school Mass and he blessed the tooth afterward. “She’s a little ray of sunshine, that’s for sure.”

A different life

Frannie’s life has been so different than her uncle Kevin’s: Born in 1967, Kevin wasn’t expected to live past age 8; the doctors advised his parents not to bring him home. Back then, Becky said, parents weren’t raising children born with Down syndrome, and people with Down syndrome weren’t visible in society.

So Kevin grew up in a foster family. His parents and siblings visited on birthdays and holidays, and Becky always made a point to see Kevin when she came home from college. Today, the Ronan family visits Kevin in Minnesota, where he lives in a group home; his caregivers have brought him here twice for visits.

“He loves the girls so much,” Becky said, and keeps their photos in his wallet. Kevin, who is nonverbal, likes to hold his nieces’ hands and always wanted to push Frannie’s stroller when she was little. Kevin and Bella love big roller coasters, so they ride together, “with the biggest smiles ever and just have a grand old time,” Becky said.

Becky Ronan, left, enjoys time with her brother Kevin and her daughters, Frannie and Bella, at the Puget Sound Buddy Walk, sponsored by the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound. Photo: Courtesy Becky Ronan

Although much has changed in the 50 years since Kevin was born, the Ronans say more changes are needed.

Becky and Mike are advocates for people with intellectual disabilities through the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound (Becky is board vice president) and Special Olympics Washington, where Mike has been on the board for seven years, the last two as chair.

Some strides are being made, Mike said, such as the Special Olympics Unified Sports program, whose competitive teams include athletes with and without intellectual disabilities. But there still is a “big gap” in disability awareness, he said, which raises questions such as: “What’s the role of the Catholic Church to embrace disability? What’s the role of Catholic schools to embrace disability?”

Becoming more inclusive

Becky and Mike, who attended Catholic schools, sent Bella to Catholic school and wanted Frannie to have the same experience. “We were a little disheartened in the beginning to look around and see that kids with disabilities weren’t in the schools,” Becky said. “And then when we found out about St. Madeleine Sophie, we were just elated.”

They visited the school and thought, “This is just what you’d create in your mind, and they’re doing it and they’re doing it well,” Becky said.

“What’s so great about St. Madeleine Sophie,” Mike said, “is that these kids with different abilities, they’re not kept apart from the school, they’re fully integrated.”

Second-grader Frannie Ronan shares some mutual affection with eighth-graders from the “safety patrol” at St. Madeleine Sophie School in Bellevue. SMS is known for its inclusiveness, fully integrating students with different abilities into the school. Photo: Courtesy Becky Ronan

The mindset carries over to the students, who don’t look differently at someone with a disability, Becky said. That philosophy of inclusion and acceptance will carry into their adult lives, “so someday when they’re in the position to hire somebody [with a disability], they’re not going to think twice,” she added.

As Mike put it, school principal Dan Sherman is “bettering the world by virtue of the students he’s creating at St. Madeleine Sophie.”

Becky also praises the work of the archdiocese’s Diversified Learners Committee as it helps other Catholic schools become more inclusive. (Its mission is to “support students of varying ability and diverse learning needs as inclusive members in Catholic school classrooms.”)

As for the Ronans, entrusted to be parents of a child with Down syndrome, “our responsibility is to not sit here and pat ourselves on the back and say it’s gonna be OK,” Mike said. “Our responsibility is to embrace that responsibility and give this little kid the best life she can possibly have.”

Archdiocese, Volunteers helping at USA Games

The Archdiocese of Seattle and Catholic volunteers are providing three days of support for the Special Olympics USA Games. More than 4,000 athletes from all over the country will be competing at venues in the Seattle area. Partnering in the effort are the archdiocese’s Office for Catholic Schools, Inclusion Ministry and CYO Athletics, as well as the Fulcrum Foundation and the Washington State Chapter of the Knights of Columbus.

Here’s a look at how the archdiocese is helping:

  • June 29 — Welcoming athletes, coaches, families and others as they arrive at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Volunteers will be greeters, baggage claim helpers, baggage carriers and hospitality guides to the light rail station.
  • June 30 — Mass for the athletes. Archbishop J. Peter Sartain will celebrate Mass at 7 p.m. in Room 130 of Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Volunteers will greet participants and provide hospitality support.
  • July 1 — Mile-long cheer line, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., before the opening ceremonies at UW’s Husky Stadium. Volunteers will line pathways as athletes make their way to the stadium and will get free entry to the opening ceremony, 12:30–3:30 p.m., with lighting of the Special Olympics cauldron.

Volunteer spots may still be available. To sign up or learn more about ways to participate, visit specialolympicsusagames.org/catholic-schools-volunteers.

Special Olympics

Special Olympics was started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 as a way to provide people with intellectual disabilities a place to play and feel included.

Today, her vision has become a global movement with over 4.7 million athletes competing in 169 countries.

Special Olympics provides programming in sports, health, education and community building, to change the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, remove barriers and stigmas they face, and share their talents with the community.

Source: Special Olympics Washington

Northwest Catholic - June 2018

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.