Diocesan News

Villa Marie School: ‘55 Years of Angels Among Us’

LINCOLN (SNR) – The annual dance to benefit Villa Marie Home and School for Exceptional Children in Waverly will be held Jan. 25 at the Pla Mor Ballroom, 6600 W. O St., Lincoln.

Unlike past years, there is no admission fee to attend the dance this year. Rather, free-will donations will be welcomed. A meal catered by Valentino’s restaurant will be available for purchase from 6 to 8 p.m., and the band Malpractice will take the stage at 7 p.m.

The theme of the dance is “Fifty-five Years of Angels Among Us.”

Villa Marie Home and School for Exceptional Children has been serving God’s “angels” for 55 years: children between the ages of 6 and 18 who are challenged with developmental delays, Down Syndrome, autism, and other neurodiversity complications. The students receive personalized educational attention, allowing each to excel individually.

“Villa Marie seeks to educate the whole person—intellectually, socially, emotionally and spiritually,” said the school’s principal, Sister Jeanette Rerucha. “We are a Catholic School and celebrate daily Mass, but it is not a requirement to be Catholic to attend Villa Marie,” she added.

Parents can choose to have their children attend as “day students” who are dropped off in the morning and picked up at the end of the school day, or boarders, who live at the school and receive 24-hour encouragement from the Marian Sisters, returning home on weekends and holidays. It is the only school in Nebraska offering this 24-hour care in this capacity for these children, and parents report they are extremely grateful for this service. Students find great acceptance, develop amazing confidence, and grow in ways unimagined before finding Villa Marie.

“They flourish before our eyes amongst their peers in an atmosphere where they love to learn, and are encouraged to be their best selves based on their God-given talents,” said Msgr. John Perkinton, director of Villa Marie.

All three Nebraska dioceses were represented in the 10 Villa Marie students who received the Sacrament of Confirmation in November at St. Patrick Church in Lincoln. The Sisters and teachers helped the students prepare for this wonderful event, and Bishop James Conley was duly impressed.

John, one of those confirmed, was adopted through the foster care system and had a “rough start.” He struggled to learn and was frustrated.  His parents consulted a team of professionals for assistance and they suggested trying Villa Marie.

“The loving, well-trained staff members meet John where he is at, and help him grow from there,” said John’s mom, Julie Sullivan. “John is now flourishing because of Villa Marie’s loving attention.  He is on the best path he has ever been on. Villa Marie has become a family to all of us.”

Msgr. James Dawson, Villa Marie’s founder and director for 28 years, will be honored at the dance. As the country moved from an orphanage system to foster care in the early 1960s, then-Father Dawson approached Bishop James Casey, asking that the orphanage being built on the Catholic Center grounds become a home and school for children with special needs.

This request was granted, and with the help of money from an inheritance from Father Dawson’s cousin, Winifred A. Dawson, classrooms were constructed, and Villa Marie Home and School opened its doors January 2, 1964.

Also honored at this year’s dance will be Bobby Layne, one of Father Dawson’s parishioners and a good friend. Layne offered to provide entertainment for a fundraising dance at the Pla Mor Ballroom. Bobby Layne and his Orchestra played for the annual dance through 2018.

The Marian Sisters will be the third honorees of the evening, having provided leadership and their special touch to the school for 55 years.

The school is part of the Lincoln Diocese, but not funded by a local parish like the other Catholic schools. It relies heavily on private donations, grants, and fundraisers like the annual dance.

The money raised at the dance will fund the school’s Safety, Security and Physical Fitness Initiative.

“We hope to instill in our students that living a healthy lifestyle, eating nutritiously and getting exercise through creative play opportunities is fun and important for their well-being,” said Jenny Allamby, executive director of development and advancement for Villa Marie. “A new playground will increase their core strength and overall fitness levels,” she added.

The current playground consists of a 21-year-old wooden fort and 55-year-old swings and monkey bars.  All have been repaired multiple times and are overdue for being replaced. 

“Our current facilities and playground equipment are not only inadequate, but present safety concerns,” said Allamby.  In 1964, she explained, school intruders were not a concern and buildings were not constructed with safety features in mind. Therefore, Villa Marie has plans for updating security devices already in place, and for installing new safety and security features.

Allamby added that a longer term goal is a significant expansion that will allow Villa Marie to serve more individuals with special needs. This would include a new larger chapel, expanded dorm rooms, more classroom space, a larger kitchen and more office spaces as well as an elevator for handicap access, which the current building lacks.

“To become sustainable, we need to be able to offer vocational and skills training to all persons with special needs. We currently do not have the space to do this,” noted Allamby.

During the most recent Villa Marie Advisory Board meeting, she said, Dr. Matthew Hecker, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, referred to Villa Marie as “the jewel of the diocese” and cited it as a great pro-life ministry that should attract national attention.

“I was very excited to discover his vision for Villa Marie was so expansive,” Allamby said. “The need is so great. I recently received a message from a mother of a special needs child asking what country we were in. She saw our Facebook page and was interested in our school. She is disappointed that they don’t have a school like this for her son in Malaysia,” said Allamby.  “It’s heartbreaking when children need help and it’s not available.”

The school has been working with Luxlab to create a marketing video that tells the story of the school and addresses the need for expansion. It will be unveiled at the dance Jan. 25.

All are welcome at the event. Allamby said Villa Marie is very grateful to Carmen and Tony Messineo for covering the cost of the meal and servers; to Rabbit Hole Bakery for donating angel sugar cookies for dessert, which will be decorated by students; to members of the band for donating their service; and to the many other companies and individuals who have provided items for the raffle and silent auction. See villamarieschool.com, for a full list of donors and other details about the dance.


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