AP NEWS

Faith-based event aimed at celebrating ‘vital’ value of people with disabilities in Portage

April 13, 2019

During last year’s Blessed Margaret of Castello Celebration Mass, Carol Austin said organizers of the event treated her wheelchair-bound mother with great respect and kindness, and it meant the world to her.

“It was a very welcoming, very warm, very inviting Mass,” Austin said.

Her mother, Kathleen Duffy, passed away in July, but Austin said she thought it was amazing to see community members come together and celebrate people with disabilities. The event resonated with Duffy for the remainder of her life.

On April 27, another Blessed Margaret of Castello Celebration Mass and dinner gathering will be held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Portage, presided by the Rev. Gary Krahenbuhl.

Blessed Margaret, for whom the Mass is named, was an Italian woman in the late 13th century who was born blind and with a leg disability and was a member of a royal family. She became the patron of people with disabilities and is well-known in the Catholic church as a figure of hope, Krahenbuhl said.

“St. Mary Parish values all people with reverence and respect, young and old, those of strong body as well as those who struggle with physical or cognitive challenges,” Krahenbuhl said in a statement. “All have unique gifts to offer the church and their community. All are beloved in the eyes of God.”

One of the event organizers, Anne Zydowsky, said her 38-year-old son Jake is a member of the Portage-based Special Olympics organization and has received employment assistance through Northwoods Inc.

Northwoods is one of many businesses in Portage that has employed people with disabilities in the past, said Karen Zepecki, another organizer for the event.

Walmart, Culver’s and Pizza Hut also either currently or have previously employed people with a wide range of disabilities, Zepecki said.

Northwoods CEO Jolene Wheeler said the company aims to help give people with disabilities more sense of independence and choice in their lives by providing in-home services and helping connect people with possible employers.

Wheeler said the company works with about 300 people with intellectual or physical disabilities in various capacities. She added the company also helps people with vocational rehabilitation.

“Some individuals have never worked and may be into their 30s and 40s,” Wheeler said. “Our goal is to have a great partnership with employers to hire people with diverse abilities. It makes people feel good to know they have helped others.”

Wheeler said she thinks it’s “amazing and inspiring” that the organizers plan to hold the event, which is sponsored by the Apostolate for Persons with Disabilities Catholic Diocese in Madison.

Zepecki said she hopes to raise awareness of how “vital” people of disabilities are to the Portage community.

“They’re individuals who love fun. They love socializing, and they have a wonderful sense of humor,” Zepecki said. “They are the highlight of so many people’s lives. And we want to thank them for who are.”

She added Portage is a very accepting place and that the community has made efforts to make public buildings accessible.

Austin said she’s looking forward to the community once again giving back to people with disabilities with the same kindness that people showed her mother last year.

“I think Portage does an amazing job recognizing and including people,” she said.