By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 15, 2010
Marie Corrigan is the classic “steel magnolia,” a woman who has weathered some of the harshest tests of motherhood—losing one child and then waging a long battle so that her learning-challenged child could go to school.
But it is also her long-standing commitment for not only her own children, but for other children, that recently garnered her the Georgia Mother of the Year Award. Corrigan is founder of the Sophia Academy, an Atlanta K-8 faith-based school for children who have learning challenges.
She received accolades from friends, family and teachers recently at a celebration at the school in her honor. Among those giving congratulations were several previous Georgia mothers of the year and one national mother of the year.
On April 30 she will join mothers from all 50 states and Puerto Rico to “vie” for the honor of becoming the National Mother of the Year during the American Mothers Inc. meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The nonprofit organization recognizes a mother from each state who is “devoted to strengthening her family, home and community.”
This is the 75th official year for American Moms, Inc., which traces its roots back to the first Mother’s Day. According to its Web site, the group seeks “to recognize the invaluable contribution mothers make to the future success and happiness of children and society.”
Helping the future success and happiness of children who might not see themselves as “successful” in a traditional school environment is what Sophia Academy is all about. The school’s mission is the result of Corrigan’s own journey to help her eldest daughter, Caroline.
A twin, Caroline was born prematurely weighing barely one pound; her sister Claire died soon after birth. Grieving, Corrigan prayed in the hospital daily for Caroline as she fought for her life in the newborn intensive care unit. Doctors speculated that if Caroline lived, she would not have a “normal” life—she wouldn’t talk, walk or be able to gain normal cognitive skills.
Those were fighting words for the new mom.
“When we were in the hospital with Caroline, I was not thinking about being faithful (to God)—I was too upset, too mad, but I dumped all my frustration through prayer,” Corrigan recalls. “I would spend all day at the hospital saying the rosary.”
Caroline would spend a month in the NICU, coming home on oxygen and still very tiny.
As a former nurse, Corrigan knew the fundamentals of taking care of her child but faced additional challenges as Caroline grew older. As the years progressed, she tried to balance her eldest daughter’s needs as she and her husband, Victor, added to their family: two more girls and a boy. Caroline tried to keep up with her siblings but still remained behind her peers developmentally.
Corrigan remembers crying when she learned that her eldest daughter would not get into kindergarten at their parish school, Christ the King. At 5 years old, Caroline was still only about 20 pounds and delayed in her motor and speech skills.
The couple searched for a Christian-based school that offered a rigorous curriculum, fine arts and athletics for students with learning differences, a school that could nurture their daughter and let her grow in her own gifts.
Caroline went to several schools over the years, but she didn’t thrive.
“Over the years, I had constantly prayed to God to me get out of this situation, to help Caroline—I’ll do anything you want me to do,” Corrigan says, as she recalled “bargaining” with God to help her with her daughter as she grew.
“When it became clear that Caroline would not be able to attend Catholic school, I began ‘hearing’ God’s voice … ‘I’ll do a school for you.’”
That seemed a daunting directive for a mom juggling the demands of young children. But Corrigan knew it was the right thing to do.
“I wanted a school that would instill in children to be the best people they can be and include faith-type programs, like Easter and chapel—those things were important.”
Corrigan tested her idea on her women’s Bible study. “Their (attitude) was more ‘good luck,’ versus, ‘wow what a great idea,”’ she said.
“I think people thought I was crazy—here I was a nurse, with three other young children, thinking about starting a school.”
She received encouragement from her husband and from her pastor, the late Msgr. Thomas Kenny.
So she forged ahead. In 1999, she started the school in rented space from a Baptist church in Sandy Springs. Caroline was enrolled. She was almost 10.
It was a bumpy start. And after one particularly frustrating and despairing day, she came home in the early afternoon and just “wanted to sit in my car and cry,” Corrigan says. But then she had an unusual visit.
“I look up and see this man in a white painter’s suit—we had some painting done at our house—so I thought maybe he was looking for work. I got out of the car and told him, ‘I don’t need any painting today.’ But he didn’t ask me for a job; he just gave me a textbook with a cover with an eagle on it and a bible verse.”
The verse on the jacket cover was from the book of Isaiah: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
“Then he left, and I never saw him again.”
The uplifting message, and the odd way it was delivered, gave her courage, she says.
“It was such a turning point for me … I got back into the car and went back to the school … I realized that this school was going to keep going.”
This past year Sophia Academy marked its 10th year with more than 200 students. It received dual accreditation by both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Southern Association of Independent Schools.
And Corrigan’s honor isn’t just for starting her own school: in the past few years, she worked with state Rep. Edward Lindsey, who wrote to recommend Corrigan’s nomination as Georgia mother of the year.
“Georgia owes a great deal to her for her efforts,” Rep. Lindsey said. It was during the Georgia General Assembly in 2007 and 2008 that Corrigan worked closely with him on the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act. The act enables public school children with learning disabilities to be eligible for vouchers so that they may attend another public or private school in order to better address their educational needs.
Corrigan also received recommendations from her church pastor, Father Frank McNamee, of the Cathedral of Christ the King, and from John
O’Connor, executive director of special services for the Dekalb County School System, as well as praise from the board members of Sophia Academy.
But perhaps most significantly, the Corrigans’ daughter, Caroline, who is now 21 years old, has received not only the HOPE scholarship but many other scholarships, is active in a sorority and is completing her college degree; her siblings are in college and high school as well. Today Caroline is just a college student, but her legacy remains grounded in her mom’s determination to make a difference in her life.
Whether or not she is named the nation’s top mom, Corrigan will continue her stint as Georgia Mother of the Year, as an advocate of the group’s causes, among which are preventing child abuse and promoting literacy.
“I hope that I can make Georgia proud,” Corrigan said. “I am humbled to have the honor of being mother of the year—and I hope that it will bring awareness to our school.”