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Group homes ‘built’ from Tootsie Rolls

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KOVAR, the Knights of Columbus’ charitable arm that provides help to those with intellectual disabilities across the state, marks 50 years of making a difference this year. 

For Sarah Gardner, director of Special Services at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores, KOVAR is a godsend.

“We are so thankful for KOVAR support,” said Gardner, whose program has three students enrolled this year, and is hopeful for more. “KOVAR has been incredibly generous.”

That generosity comes from the top, according to J. Charles Curran, vice president of audits for KOVAR. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge has “a heart for someone with special needs,” he said.

Curran has been a member of the board for 21 years. Since its inception, the organization has raised more than $17.5 million and offered $5 million in loans.

“We don’t give money to individuals, we work with other organizations,” he said.  

KOVAR includes all Knights in Virginia, not just the Arlington diocese. The name KOVAR was previously an acronym but as it includes an outdated term for people with mental disabilities, the Knights have kept the name for brand recognition purposes but ditched the acronym.

The group funds projects in schools, stores, homes and many other places where there is a need. Donations to fund the grants come in all shapes and sizes. After weekend Masses, Knights sell Tootsie Rolls outside churches, generating free-will offerings and greater awareness about KOVAR. Additionally, collection jars inside stores — including ABC stores — and at school-sponsored 5K fun runs are another source of donations.

The grant applications are detailed and each recipient must specify how the funds will be used.

Gardner said that while that makes for a more challenging application, it helps illustrate the need and where the money is going.

“It helps to show it is something tangible,” she said.

John Paul the Great has used its KOVAR funds to buy school supplies and put step stools in bathrooms. This helps people with Down syndrome, who are typically shorter than the average adult, reach the sink.

The school plans to start a coffee cart using KOVAR funds. The cart will be run by students in the school’s Options program, for students with disabilities, to help teach valuable life and business skills they can use once they graduate.

KOVAR works with various schools throughout the diocese that have similar Options programs, including three of the four diocesan high schools. They expect to soon begin work with the fourth — Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.

The all-volunteer group also helps to buy and rehabilitate homes for adults who can’t live independently.

“We would never be able to be where we are today without KOVAR,” said Jim McHugh, president of the nonprofit Marian Homes Inc. in Fairfax Station.

Marian Homes has repurposed seven homes in suburban neighborhoods for adults with intellectual disabilities. Each home houses five adults. An eighth home is expected to be ready in early 2022.

Renovating a home to accommodate adults with special needs is no easy task. McHugh said they look for single-story homes with at least four bedrooms with the potential for a fifth, whether it be a den or a garage that could be converted. The work also includes gutting the inside so that wheelchairs can easily maneuver, installing handrails, and retrofitting showers and countertops to be accessible.

“The parents are getting older and they worry about their son or daughter and who will care for them,” said McHugh. “These homes give them a level of comfort that their child will be taken care of even after they are gone,” he said.

Marian Homes rents the homes at a reduced rate to organizations that specialize in caring for the residents, but takes care of maintenance costs such as lawn care and HVAC repairs.

McHugh said COVID-19 has made it a difficult year. “Please be generous for those Tootsie Rolls. (KOVAR) does yeoman’s work, and it's often very quiet.”

Shaffrey is a freelancer in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021