It started with a letter....


In 1967 the price of a stamp was only five cents, but Memphian Mr. Robert Winfield would have gladly paid more to mail his letter had he known the result of his words would be the creation of The Madonna Day School. Mr. Winfield was frustrated over the lack of educational opportunities for his son, Keith, and his letter set in motion a chain of events which culminated in three Benedictine sisters traveling 370 miles from Ferdinand, Indiana, to Memphis, Tennessee, to start a school for children with special needs.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act would not be enacted for another 7 years (1975), and at the time of Mr. Winfield’s letter, public schools were not required to provide an education for children with special needs. In fact many states actually created laws to exclude children with disabilities from the school system. From its inception, the goal of The Madonna Day School has been to provide a place where the cognitive, social, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of children with disabilities could be met in a faith-based environment. As a result of Mr. Winfield’s determination, his son Keith would end up being one of the first students to attend and graduate from the school.

On May 14, 2014, I attended the groundbreaking for the Madonna Learning Center’s new building and listened to Keith Winfield address a crowed sanctuary. In 1996 the school moved to its present location on Poplar Avenue, but is now embarking on a $10 million dollar building project to accommodate its growing needs. The new space will provide additional classrooms, a gym with a stage, new administrative space, a new kitchen, a new art room, music and dance space as well as occupational therapy and speech therapy rooms. In addition, two new playgrounds will be constructed at the facility which we know is #1 in the children’s eyes. A dedicated building will be constructed for the older enrollees at the Madonna Learning Center who learn life and living skills. This building will include four life skills rooms, a laundry room, a kitchen and a rec room. New interior finishes throughout the old and new space will help the children with way finding and provide for visual identification of different spaces.

Keith Winfield was one of several former students to address the large crowd and I was reminded of the life and hope this school injects into our city. Keith’s message was one of opportunity where previously there had been none. Memphis should be very proud that the Madonna Learning Center has thrived in its midst. I also had the opportunity that afternoon to visit with several parents of children who attended The Madonna Learning Center. While the specifics of what the center provided for each of their children was different, the overall feeling was that the teachers and therapists at the Madonna Learning Center provided great light in the midst of a dark situation. The stories of those families and of families to come will continue to be woven together in this new facility and we are proud to play a small part in those stories.

To learn more about the Madonna Learning Center and see the wonderful things they are doing in the City of Memphis for children with developmental and cognitive disabilities and how you might be able to play a part in their mission, please visit their webpage through the link below.