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Porto Charities wins NCEA Seton Award

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The National Catholic Educational Association awarded Porto Charities the Seton Award as part of its annual gala at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington Oct. 1.

Porto Charities President Leo Alonso, who received the award on behalf of his organization, was quick to credit Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, who accompanied Catherine Finnegan, a 2018 NCEA Seton Scholar, onto the stage.

“The mission of Porto Charities is to give every child that requires special education the opportunity to go to school in a caring environment.”

“If anyone really deserves the award it is the bishop,” Alonso said. He also thanked three tables of educators from the diocese of Arlington for their work in “teaching our kids independence, self-esteem.” 

After some coaxing, Alonso convinced the teachers and staff from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington and other Arlington schools to receive applause from the 305 people gathered.

“Diocese of Arlington, stand up,” Alonso said. “Don’t be bashful.”

Alonso credited the Diocese of Arlington for providing welcome to students with special needs.

“The mission of Porto Charities is to give every child that requires special education the opportunity to go to school in a caring environment,” Alonso said in an interview before the awards ceremony. “That’s what we give at Paul VI and the other programs we have in the diocese: acceptance. It’s something they don’t necessarily get in the public schools.”

Alonso’s daughter, Vivian, who has Down syndrome and joined him on the stage, was part of the first special needs program at Paul VI. Her father witnessed firsthand how she and subsequent special needs students were integrated into the entire school community through the Options program.

“They receive acceptance from everybody involved: their peer mentors, the other students, the teachers; even the basketball team and the soccer team are involved in the tournaments that we do at the school,” Alonso said regarding PVI Options. “And all of this leads to a certain independence and self-confidence, which is the most important thing, because they’re treated with respect like everyone else.”

Selecting Alonso and Porto Charities for a Seton Award was an easy decision to make according to Matt Russell, NCEA’s chief advancement and business development officer.

“They were nominated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and members of his Catholic schools office team. Bishop Burbidge said, ‘Hold on, you know who you have to recognize? This Porto Charities group has been doing amazing work here in the diocese and this really ought to be recognized and promoted nationally,’” Russell said. “The first time I heard the story of what Porto had done, I said, ‘Oh yeah. This is it.’”

Caitlin Donovan, who was on Vivian Alonso’s Special Olympics soccer team, said that the Options program at Paul VI was a game changer for her.

“I have a learning disability as well as milo cardiofacial syndrome, and PVI helped me tremendously,” Donovan said. “What the Options program did is help me make friends and to be in an environment where I could learn.”

Like Alonso’s daughter, Donovan went on to study at George Mason University in Fairfax, where they have a program similar to Options called George Mason Life.

“The Mason Life Program helped me navigate through the city of Fairfax, and it also helped me in getting a job which I now do on campus,” Donovan said. “I am working for a company called AIM-VA, which distributes large print books for students who have difficulty reading. I’ve been working there since 2008.”

For Alonso, employment for those with special needs is the next issue he wants Porto Charities to lead.

“The biggest issue that we have to address in the future is employment. Something like only 30 percent of those with intellectual disabilities in the United States are employed,” Alonso said. “We have these young men and women who have the self-confidence from the programs that we’ve provided and who are very, very capable. They do a great job.”

He gave Donovan’s career path as a possible model, stressing the importance of having others with special needs working together to form a community outside of work.

“First, there were three who graduated from Mason, but now there are 52 who go there every year, and after experiencing independence many want to stay, like Donovan,” Alonso said. “I was able to convince families to buy 10 houses in the neighborhood outside of Mason and we helped them build a community within a 10-block area.”

For Donovan, living in community helps balance work with other aspects of her life.

“I live in a house not far from campus with two roommates, and I am able to walk to work,” she said. “In my spare time, I love hanging out with everyone who lives here in the community. We go bowling in D.C., head into Georgetown, go to baseball games. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Alonso’s daughter, Vivian, now 34, is also employed. From her time working at the post office while at George Mason, she found a job delivering mail to congressmen on Capitol Hill.

During Alonso’s speech, Vivian went up to give him a hug of support, at which point he joked, “She likes the limelight.”

Rick Hart, Director of Security at O’Connell High School, had a hard time holding back tears during the awards ceremony as he reflected on the expanded services the school provides to students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities.

“I’ve been at O’Connell for 18 years and the school does great things every day, but this is the best in my opinion. It’s as if God sent angels around our school. They’re the most popular kids in our school. All the students love them. They’re the kings and queens of our school,” Hart said. "This little girl who is winning the award tonight, Katie, she is truly a gift from God.

NCEA chose her as a Seton Scholar because of her remarkable ability to inspire people to be all that they are called to be. Finnegan also enjoys participating in the basketball club at O’Connell and is gifted with a strong memory.

Other 2018 Seton Scholars include: Sarah Tetedje, Jada Davis, Mi'chael Pearson and Ezra Dillard. In addition to Porto Charities, five others received 2018 NCEA Seton Awards: James and Molly Perry, Kevin Short, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Women’s Education Alliance and Jesuit Father Joseph O’Keefe.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018