The remarkable works of Eileen O’Connor Catholic College

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Jamie Gillibrand is a very special young student attending an equally special school.

The 7-year-old is one of the first kindergarten students to attend Eileen O’Connor Catholic College, the only school of its kind in the Sydney Archdiocese catering for young people with intellectual disability in a Catholic environment.

The remarkable students and staff of Eileen O’Connor Catholic College. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Established in 2016 with just 19 students in Years 7 to 10, the college has now grown to over 100 students offering places from kindergarten to Year 12.

Answering the huge demand from families of children with disabilities, the school is now “bursting at the seams” and has a lengthy waiting list.

For Jamie’s parents, the Lewisham school is an absolute God-send.

Mum Anita said it provided a nurturing and compassionate environment for her son with challenging needs.

“I looked everywhere but couldn’t find anywhere that was equipped for him,” she said.

“He has a condition called Infantile Spasms which quite simply means severe epilepsy, with his first seizure at just 3 months.

“He has had two operations in Boston with one of the world’s top neurosurgeons and despite not being able to speak nor toilet trained, he has come a long way.

“Being able to send my son with very specific needs to school in a Catholic environment really is very special.

“From the minute I walked around the school I knew it was the perfect place for Jamie to be the best he can be.

“The school provides a comforting environment for the families, we all have a shared understanding of what it’s like to have a child with special needs, and can lean on them and the teaching staff when times get a little tough.”

Campus principal Gail Story with kindergarten student Jamie Gillibrand PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

And 2020 doesn’t only mark the school’s first kindy class, its first group of Year 12’s will also graduate at the end of the year.

The college has prepared the students for life after school with principal Gail Story confident many will gain employment in the community.

“We are a Catholic school first and foremost offering students the opportunity to be independent and prepare them for life after school,” she said.

“Working here is not for everybody, but for the ones who do, they couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

“Seeing our students flourish and be the best possible people they can be is so rewarding and seeing our first lot of Year 12’s preparing for life after school makes us all very proud.

“While not all of our students will be capable of working, many will gain employment in various occupations like office work, packing plants and the food industry.

“Having Eileen O’Connor as our patron means giving access and support to those most in need and develop their skills.

“My career has always been in special education and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”

“My career has always been in special education and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Named in honour of saint-in-waiting Eileen O’Connor, whose strength, determination and charity could make her Australia’s next saint, she serves as a constant inspiration for the students.

Eileen suffered from a debilitating illness for most of her short life and was constantly in pain. Despite this she served the poor tirelessly and founded the religious order Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in Coogee.

Sr. Margaret Mary Birgin from Our Lady’s Nurses said Eileen would be very pleased with the work being done at the school named in her honour.

“Eileen would be ‘stoked’ because she loved children and she gave her life for the poor and sick,” she said.

“Eileen loved helping people and in particular loved young children so I can’t think of a better school – particularly one for little ones with special needs – to be named after her.

“Seeing her work in practice at a school where the children are so special yet so happy makes us all delighted.

“Eileen has provided a ray of light to the faith of these special little ones and it shows all over their faces.”

Executive principal Ian Jackson with campus principal Gail Story and Kindergarten students. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok