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New Options teacher honors the legacy of her special needs sister

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Signs of Casey McLellan’s little sister, Shannon Sullivan, fill her classroom at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. It’s fitting, considering it was Shannon’s classroom a little more than 10 years ago. Shannon was one of the first students in the school’s special-needs, inclusion program — Options.

There’s a Yankees clock on the windowsill in honor of Shannon’s favorite baseball team. Several pictures of the Options sport teams during Shannon’s years at Paul VI hang on the walls. Behind Casey’s desk, family pictures are tacked to a bulletin board.

Casey was a junior at Paul VI when the Options program was implemented. She remembers the day the administration brought all the students into the auditorium and explained the plan. Having a special needs sister, Casey was nervous the students wouldn’t accept other kids like Shannon. But the following year, she was amazed at the transformation.

“This program just lit a light within the school, like nothing I had ever seen,” Casey said. “It was an amazing thing to see how these kids were embraced.”

Options began with the simple belief that special needs students should be able to receive a quality, Catholic education, just like their peers. According to Casey, Shannon’s years at Paul VI were the best of her life. “Here at PVI was the only time that she actually felt normal and was treated normally,” she said.

Casey, a parishioner of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, describes her sister as spunky, funny and a sports-lover, especially of basketball and baseball. She was small, under 5 feet, “but she had more personality in her tiny little body (than most),” she said. Though Shannon was taken to many specialists, her disability was never diagnosed. “She was just one of a kind,” said Casey.

Growing up with Shannon wasn’t always easy, she said. She was always the star of the show and received attention from everybody. But being Shannon’s sister taught Casey “how to be kind, it taught me empathy, and it made me a very protective person,” she said.

After graduating from Paul VI, Casey attended college in Delaware and began working in the corporate world. She later started a floristry business on the side. “(Shannon) was my first employee, (helping) me clean off the stems and prep the flowers for weddings,” she said. Casey also was married, and has since given birth to two sons.

In 2013, Shannon died when her body was unresponsive to medication during an asthma attack; she was 28 years old. During that difficult time, the outpouring of support from the Paul VI community was incredible, said Casey. In honor of Shannon’s love for her school, the family requested donations to the Options program in lieu of flowers.

Both Shannon and her mother Vicki, took comfort knowing Shannon was now with her father, who had passed away a few years earlier. In his life, he took great pride in coaching various Options sports programs and was involved in Special Olympics. “My dad had already gone, so (my mom and I) felt like they were best buddies and now they’re together,” said Casey.

Still, Shannon’s death was a great loss and for a long time Casey prayed to find meaning in her sister’s sudden passing. She found that purpose after seeing a job opening for the Options program. Casey was offered the job on the anniversary of Shannon’s death, July 12, almost down to the minute. “Even though I miss Shannon, she would make sure that I knew I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her, that she was responsible for this,” she said.

This fall, Casey began teaching reading and social studies — “a new adventure in a familiar place. … I believe God had a plan for me, and Shannon was the angel guiding me,” she said.

Maraist can be reached at zmaraist@catholicherald.com or on Twitter@zoeymaraist.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016