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Faith drives mother-daughter special ed duo

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They interrupt one another and finish each other's sentences. They laugh easily and cry every now and then. Chris and Mary Desmarais have the unmistakable dynamic of a strong mother-daughter relationship - one built on a common passion for special education and, most importantly, their Catholic faith.

"The faith my mom has shared is a huge gift," said Mary, sitting with her mom in a classroom at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, where she's in her first year teaching Expanded Services. Expanded Services is new to O'Connell and integrates students with intellectual disabilities into the school.

For more than a decade, Chris has worked at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax as director of Options, a comprehensive special education program.

The duo's parallel careers began with a person dear to them both: Chris' goddaughter and Mary's cousin, Maddie, who has Down syndrome.

"She has such a compassionate and spiritual nature," said Chris. "And she's very genuine," Mary added.

Maddie, now 25, is "so like me in many ways," said Mary. "I saw the similarities more than her differences, and I connected on that level."

It's her spirit not Down syndrome that makes her unique, they said, but she opened their eyes to an important population.

In the summer of 2003, Chris, who has a background in psychology, felt it would be fulfilling "to work with a population of individuals (whom) I thought I could serve academically, but also learn from."

So, with some urging from the Paul VI Options director, Chris began taking graduate classes in special education. That fall she started teaching in the Paul VI Options Program, now in its 17th year. Chris was named director a year and a half later, and she went on to earn her master's in Catholic school leadership and administration from Marymount University in Arlington.

According to Chris, there's a growing push in Catholic schools to reach students with intellectual disabilities. As part of that trend, O'Connell launched Expanded Services this year, with Mary as its first teacher. Students receive support in the classroom and individual or small-group instruction when needed.

Mary insists her career choice did not emerge out of "a desire to follow in my mom's footsteps," and her mother agreed. Instead, it was a personal and circuitous path.

While a student at Paul VI, Mary was an Options peer mentor, and she considered pursing special education in college. But plans changed and she graduated from the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school in Pennsylvania, with a degree in marketing.

After a short stint in marketing, she realized she needed to go with her gut and went back to school to earn her master's in special education.

"Sometimes you just know you're supposed to do something, and you just have to go with it," she said.

Although she didn't intend to replicate her mom's career path, Mary said her mother helped set her spiritual compass - and that has informed all parts of her life.

Growing up, Mary recalls her mother squeezing in a prayer wherever and whenever she could: before driving or eating, when she washed her hands and when she heard an ambulance in the distance.

"She's got me on this big prayer kick," said Mary. "She's got me praying more, and this summer I stated going to daily Mass with her."

Now Mary attends Mass whenever she gets the chance. "I probably wouldn't have done that without her influence," she said.

Mother and daughter studied in the halls of Catholic schools for a total of 36 years, and teaching at O'Connell and Paul VI allows them to share the formation they are so grateful for.

Catholic schools are "in our genes," said Chris.

"I love being in a place where you can talk about God, talk about prayer," Mary said. "It's something I bring with me every day into the classroom."

Neither Mary nor Chris can talk about their job without beaming.

"Working with people with intellectual disabilities, it's not just about the students; it's a gift to the entire community," said Chris. "Everybody learns, everybody grows, and everybody becomes a little more compassionate."

Student mentors at both schools are a special part of their work.

"Teens get a bad rap, but sometimes I call my mom and tell her, 'The peer mentors are just wonderful,'" said Mary. "I'm not the emotional one, but oh my gosh, there are some good souls here."

With similar jobs, Chris and Mary regularly swap ideas and resources. Mary's sister, Annie, is a teacher at Paul VI, so family gatherings regularly turn into lively discussions about education.

"My poor father," said Mary, laughing.

Looking over at her daughter, Chris said she's proud of Mary not because they have the same dedication to special education, but because she's fulfilling her vocation as a teacher so beautifully.

"She made career choices that were hard to make and knew there would be challenges and sacrifices ahead," said Chris. "I can hear the joy in her voice. I see her energy and enthusiasm for what she's doing. I think as a parent, you can't want a whole lot more for a son or daughter than that."

To keep in mind

Mary and Chris Desmarais offered suggestions for interacting with or speaking about people with intellectual disabilities:

Use people-first language, which emphasizes the person, not the disability. For example, instead of saying, "an autistic," say, "a person with autism."

"Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, and affect people's daily lives," states The Arc, an advocacy group for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Don't make assumptions. "People often make assumptions about those with intellectual disabilities," said Chris. Don't presume they don't understand what you're saying, can't hear you or don't have the same desires or likes as you. "They really are more like you than you think," she said.

"Get to know them as individuals, just like you would get to know anybody else," added Mary.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015