“It was a true blessing to be at Notre Dame for four years,” says Notre Dame Regional High School 2021 graduate Ashlyn Baer.
“It is hard for me to say this without crying,” her voice cracks. “It has been the best joy ever. I am sad I am leaving. This was my home. A lot of people welcomed me into this world to have this kind of experience — to love this school. I have had a lot of good memories.
“It just breaks my heart I’ve graduated because I can’t start all over again being a high schooler,” she said. “I told a junior to take care of Notre Dame High School for me because I won’t be back. I’m sad.”
It’s bittersweet, for sure, says Ashlyn’s mother, Melissa Baer.
But their mantra is, “Don’t be sad it’s over. Be happy it happened.”
More than four years ago, Notre Dame High School welcomed Ashlyn – its first student with a rare genetic disorder — with open arms. The experience blossomed into what her mother calls “a beautiful thing”.
Ashlyn’s Early Years
Eighteen years ago, Ashlyn was born with a heart murmur. Genetic testing a few weeks later at St. Louis Children’s Hospital led to a diagnosis of Williams Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental genetic disorder that occurs in one in 10,000 births and is characterized by heart issues, mild to moderate learning disabilities, outgoing personalities and a love of music.
“We had not heard of it,” Melissa said.
And thus, Melissa and her husband, Jeff, members of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Cape Girardeau, began their journey of educating themselves while guiding Ashlyn along her path.
At three months old, the family enrolled Ashlyn in First Steps, Missouri’s early intervention program. It provided in-home therapy through age three. She attended pre-school and pre-K through the Jackson Public School’s Early Childhood Program. As she entered elementary school, her parents advocated for inclusion in a general education classroom, knowing she would need some support, but wanting her to learn both from her teachers and fellow students.
Ashlyn continued in the Jackson Public Schools through eighth grade, always in a general education classroom except for an hour a day in a resource room.
“As we began planning for her transition to high school during her eighth-grade year, we started pushing for her to be immersed in an inclusive classroom setting with additional resources available as needed,” Melissa said.
Finding a Home at Notre Dame
That’s when their thoughts turned to the possibility of Ashlyn attending Notre Dame.
At that point, the Baer’s oldest child, Emelia, (ND ’16) had been out of Notre Dame less than a year, Melissa said, “and we got to thinking about the possibility of Ashlyn attending, knowing that Becki Essner, at the time, was Notre Dame’s resource teacher and ‘she is phenomenal.’”
They tossed around the idea of how it might look for Ashlyn to attend Notre Dame. Could she handle it? Would it be a good experience for her?
They met with then Principal Brother David Migliorino.
“He was just phenomenal,” Melissa said. “He said, ‘Why not?’ We told him it was going to be a little more complicated than that. He said, ‘I know your family. I know Ashlyn. We would be blessed to have her.
“Sometimes when you have a child that has challenges, your biggest fear is that they are not loved and included and accepted,” she acknowledged.
“Having him say, ‘she would be a blessing to us’” was comforting, Melissa said.
Their plan began taking shape as they met with Essner and Notre Dame Counselor Ruth Ann Hester who visited Ashlyn at Jackson Junior High to observe her in a classroom setting. Hester concluded that Notre Dame “could do this.”
The Baers arranged for retired teacher Pam Perkins to serve as Ashlyn’s paraprofessional.
Perkins assisted Ashlyn throughout the day, remaining “in the background” but serving as “a liaison between Ashlyn and the classroom teacher,” Melissa said.
“I love her to death,” Ashlyn said of Perkins. “I think she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. She was very kind to me. We became good friends.”
Perkins provided Ashlyn with support in managing her academic load. Ashlyn was independent when it came to PE, music and drama classes, and lunch, but needed a little more assistance with math and science coursework. As Ashlyn gained more independence, Perkins stepped back into a part-time role.
By her junior year, Ashlyn was attending several classes on her own, and by her senior year, she was pretty much independent at Notre Dame.
“It was a process to get to that point. Ashlyn matured and became more comfortable advocating with her teachers,” Melissa said. “It takes a big village.”
Along the way, Ashlyn also was active in several extracurricular activities, including Pep Band, choir, Friends of the Library and Encore. She also served as an usher at Notre Dame musicals. Academically, her favorite class was “History of the American Woman.”
“For some students that don’t particularly fit in down the typical path, love and acceptance is just so important,” Melissa said. “What she got here, the love, the acceptance, the kindness, the compassion, the extra help from the teachers, the (friendship of the) students was phenomenal. Sometimes it was just a ‘hi’ and a hug in the halls.”
Notre Dame developed an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Ashlyn, meaning certain modifications to class assignments were made. Ashlyn sometimes gave PowerPoint and oral presentations — her strengths — instead of a writing a research paper. Notre Dame also made use of assistive technology – Chromebook and Google Classroom — to help Ashlyn succeed in the classroom setting.
“She still did the work on the topic, it just looked different at times,” Melissa said. “She still put in the time. Sometimes when we give people chances, when we think outside of the box, great things can happen.”
The Good and the Bad
Yet, it was not always easy. Ashlyn and her family are grateful Notre Dame reopened for in-person classes in August 2020, following a closure in March forcing the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ashlyn said she cried upon reading an email from Bishop Edward Rice and learning she would not be returning to school in spring 2020. Among other things, there would be no Pop Concert, Ashlyn lamented.
“It was just heartbreaking for me,” she shared.
Melissa said, “The good news is that she got to spend her entire senior year in person at Notre Dame, which was a blessing.”
During her final days at Notre Dame, Ashlyn spoke in the school’s theology classes, educating her fellow students about Williams Syndrome. The presentations were capped by a dress-down day in which students raised $1,375 (which the Baer family matched) to support the Williams Syndrome Association.
And her Notre Dame experience was punctuated on April 30 with Ashlyn being crowned Prom Queen.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “It was an extreme honor and blessing.”
Melissa said the prom queen title was yet another testimony to the integrity of Notre Dame students.
“One of Ashlyn’s friends said, ‘Ashlyn has been cheering us on for four years and has been a loyal friend for four years. She deserved this because she loves big, and we love her back,’” Melissa said.
On May 16, Notre Dame awarded Ashlyn its Spirit of St. Francis Award for the “Spirit of Joy” during the school’s graduation ceremonies. It’s a fitting honor, considering Ashlyn believes her life’s purpose is filling others with happiness.
“God put me on this earth for a reason,” she said, “not just to be down here, but to make people smile and laugh all day long without hesitation. That’s what I was born to do – to make people happy.”
With her Notre Dame Regional High School diploma in hand, Ashlyn is now attending Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is one of only 13 students selected to participate in their IDEAL Program this fall.
IDEAL is a three-year program offering a college experience for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The program is designed to encourage and support these students while they experience college with their peers. It is one of about 260 such programs nationally.
“Especially for individuals with Williams Syndrome, these programs are kind of perfect because they are able to do a lot,” Melissa said. “Ashlyn probably wouldn’t meet the ACT requirements to get into a typical college program, but she can do a lot. It is just going to take some mentoring and some modifications here and there.”
IDEAL is a certificate program giving students like Ashlyn the opportunity to experience college, while gaining maturity, independence and job skills. Mentors assist with residence hall life, organize an exercise program, eat lunch with students and plan social events for them. IDEAL participants also will attend chapel services.
Half of her coursework consists of IDEAL classes, focusing on cooking, independent living and budgeting. Her other courses are regular University classes.
As part of the program, students choose an area of study and participate in career internships each semester. Ashlyn’s current areas of interest are in positions as a daycare teacher, barista, librarian or teacher’s aide. The third year of the program is immersive in which she will work full-time during the day and live with other IDEAL students in the evenings in an apartment. There, they will learn budgeting, meal planning, shopping, cooking, how to do laundry and use Uber, and other practical skills.
“I know my mom is going to cry…when I’m not at home,” said Ashlyn. “My mom and dad mean everything to me. It’s not easy to move away from them.”
Melissa says Ashlyn is ready for the experience, though.
“That’s how she is truly going to grow.”
Ashlyn is fortunate her family will be nearby. She and her mother moved to Nashville to join Ashlyn’s father and younger sister, Elise, who together relocated to Nashville last August. Her father recently opened a K·Coe Isom office there, where he is serving as a managing partner. With the family transitioning to Nashville, Elise started and completed her freshman year at Father Ryan High School this past year.
The family is excited to be in one location after a year of traveling between two cities. They are also happy they will be within close proximity of Ashlyn to take her to dinner, meet for a cup of coffee or be available if needed once she enters Lipscomb.
Ashlyn says she will miss her friends at Notre Dame, and she and her mother acknowledge Notre Dame will always hold a special place in their hearts.
“This is just a beautiful example of what can happen when you are kind and you are loving and you are compassionate,” Melissa said. “Beautiful things happen on both ends. She (Ashlyn) has been a recipient of this love, and it has empowered her to really go to the next step and feel confident that she is ready.
“And I think Brother David is right. She also has been a blessing here to Notre Dame because sometimes, as loving as this place is, a lot of the students are blessed and maybe don’t face some of the challenges you would find in a metro, urban city school. So, I think sometimes being around a peer that has some challenges and some need for some help just provides that daily example, if you will, of how we can put our faith into action. God calls us to be kind and compassionate and loving” and calls us to put that into practice daily.”
Assistant Principal for Student Activities Paul Unterreiner underscored her sentiments.
“Anyone who is blessed enough to experience Ashlyn Baer for a minute is better because of it,” he said. “She gets great joy out of seeing people smile. Our hallways were brighter because she was in them.”
Unterreiner said Ashlyn befriended all students – the gamers, the athletes, the feeder school students.
“To see her relationship with them and see them buy into loving her was really cool,” he said. “Her classmates are more accepting because of Ashlyn. Her classmates are better because of Ashlyn.”
Melissa says the love and acceptance Ashlyn received at Notre Dame are the building blocks for her next step.
“I don’t know if there will ever be another Ashlyn walk the halls of Notre Dame, but I sincerely hope there is,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. I would love for some other student to benefit from the path we blazed here. I think it is doable. I would like to see that happen.”