By David Sedeño
The Texas Catholic
Monica Ramirez came to the Notre Dame School of Dallas 20 years ago, not knowing that in preparing the meals for dozens upon dozens of students with developmental disabilities that she also was paving the way for her own son, who would one day call the school his own.
Her son, Juan Ramirez, is 19 and like the 144 other students at the school in downtown Dallas he has developmental disabilities. But that has not stopped him from learning tasks, learning to be social and learning to work at various jobs outside the school that will prepare him for independent living in the future.
Monica Ramirez said that for many years her son attended public school, but had few friends and rarely socialized. Since transferring to the Notre Dame School four years ago, not only have his learning and social skills improved but her expectations for his future have grown more positive.
“My son loves it here,” she said. “He plays sports, flag football, basketball, bowling. He can identify with other students and it’s his home. Whenever we are on break or on vacation, all he wants to do is get back here with his friends.”
The Notre Dame School of Dallas was founded in 1963 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame to help students with developmental disabilities. There were only 12 students in that first class. Today, there are 145 students from ages 6 to 21, all with different levels of needs.
The ultimate goal is for the students to learn skills that will allow them to be as independent as possible.
That’s where the vocational program comes in. Currently, there are 43 students ranging from ages 18-21 who go out to 30 different job sites for about two hours each day of the week. They go to nursing homes, restaurants, food service businesses or other businesses that have partnered with the school to offer students opportunities for jobs that go beyond the minimum-wage paychecks.
“Our students don’t learn in the classroom in a simulated environment. They learn on-site,” said Notre Dame Principal Theresa Francis. “They are learning those skills in a real environment and they are working with their typical peers in the community, so our goal is to transition the supervision of our students from our direct supervision to their peers, just like any other person who works in the community.”
During the school days, Juan and his friends work in the classroom, on computers and banter at lunch and on the playground. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Juan Ramirez is dropped off by a school van at Ruibal’s Plants of Texas at the Dallas Farmers Market. He makes minimum wage and sweeps the greenhouse, waters plants, puts on gloves and moves flower containers and the like. He keeps busy from one task to the next until it’s time for him to get picked up by a school van.
Business owners Mike and Linda Ruibal’s relationship with the Notre Dame School of Dallas goes back 30 years because of their daughter Maggie, who was a student there. Although Maggie succumbed to her illnesses before realizing full adulthood, the Ruibals saw the importance of giving Maggie’s classmates opportunities.
“It gives them a sense of pride and a sense that they are not always going to be dependent on somebody else for everything,” Linda Ruibal said. “Notre Dame School is special to us because it gave Maggie a sense of being somebody.
“As long as there’s Ruibal’s Plants of Texas, we will have at least one Notre Damer, if not three or four,” said Linda Ruibal, whose family attends St. Jude Chapel in downtown Dallas. “These students will fill a spot for us not just so we can tell the world how wonderful we are with hiring these students but because they fill part of us and keep us connected with Maggie and her spirit.”
Find more stories celebrating Dallas Catholic Schools and Catholic Schools Week 2020 in the Jan. 24 print edition of The Texas Catholic.