By John Campbell, Community Press

Campbellford – St. Mary’s Elementary School has been chosen the first recipient of the Mary Cook Inclusive Education Award by Community Living Campbellford/Brighton (CLCB).

Students and staff members at St. Mary's Catholic Elementary School in Campbellford accept the Mary Cook Inclusive Education Award from Community Living Campbellford and Brighton last week. Making the presentation are community living executive director Nancy Brown and manager of supports and services Donna Desjardins (holding plaques). With them is teacher Linda Carson.

Students and staff members at St. Mary's Catholic Elementary School in Campbellford accept the Mary Cook Inclusive Education Award from Community Living Campbellford and Brighton last week. Making the presentation are community living executive director Nancy Brown and manager of supports and services Donna Desjardins (holding plaques). With them is teacher Linda Carson.

The award, introduced at the agency’s annual general meeting June 23, recognizes an individual or group who has supported human rights and equality “by promoting and advocating for inclusive education for all, including people with intellectual disabilities,” CLCB executive director Nancy Brown said.

St. Mary’s was chosen because of the leadership it has shown in this area, providing “very positive and supportive approaches at all levels which promote inclusion and respect for all,” she said, noting that students with intellectual disabilities are encouraged “to be actively involved in all academic and extracurricular activities on a regular basis.”

The person after whom the award was named was instrumental in founding the local Community Living association in 1960. Until Mary Cook came along, the opportunity for children with intellectual disabilities to obtain services “was extremely limited in the Campbellford area,” Brown said.

After the local association was formed, its first project was the opening of Merryvale School – the first school for intellectually disabled children in Northumberland County.

Eleven children, seven to 16 years of age, attended. In 1968, the Ministry of Education assumed responsibility for the school’s operation.

“We have been very impressed with St. Mary’s’ vision and attitude toward the importance of inclusive education,” Brown said.

The school has also been “incredibly supportive over the years in assisting our agency to promote public awareness of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities,” one example being its involvement in the development of a television commercial that made the public aware of “the values and importance of inclusive education.”

Its ongoing support and dedication has helped make Trent Hills “one of the most inclusive communities in Ontario,” Brown said, and among the best informed as to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

“This has proven to be very effective when advocating for change and opportunities for the people we support.”

St. Mary’s principal Steve Egan said the school’s inclusiveness program, part of a board-wide initiative, is based on the principle that all students are valued, and that all have gifts and skills to offer. And it sends a message to all students that everyone is included “in everything we do,” he said.

Pointing to construction work taking place at the side of the school building, Egan said St. Mary’s is even now making the school more physically inclusive by adding extra ramps and an elevator, and refitting all of the washrooms. This work is all part of the school’s commitment to opening up the school to everyone in the community, he said.

In addition, the school is putting in a special room for students with “sensory issues.” The room will have a soothing, calming atmosphere that will benefit some students, Egan said.

With file from Mark Hoult/Community Press