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Jim Fisher talks with Madonna School student Emily Guzinski, left, and others after a school Mass Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Photo by Mike May/Staff.

Faith helps Omaha man give despite challenges

Acceptance through faith.

It’s what helps Jim Fisher meet the challenges of a debilitating genetic condition and, instead of despairing, reach out to help others who also face challenges.

As a volunteer at Madonna School and Community-Based Services in Omaha, which serves youth and adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities, Fisher leads a weekly Bible study for young adults. He also visits patients at Quality Living Inc. (QLI) in Omaha, a center for brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Fisher, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha, is a victim of ataxia, a neurological disorder characterized by lack of coordination, unsteadiness, slurred speech and tremors. It currently has no cure and no treatment aside from physical therapy, he said.

He and his wife, Theresa, a first-grade teacher at Mary Our Queen School in Omaha, have five children, ages 18 to 26, and three grandchildren.

A math teacher for 14 years at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, Fisher was forced to resign earlier this year when working became too difficult.

"As I applied for disability, I thought I’d like to keep busy and I also wanted to give back," he said. "I wanted to give, not give up."

So one evening, during adoration before the Eucharist, Fisher sought answers – what did God want him to do now? "I had a feeling, or a voice in my head saying, ‘I want you to teach a Bible study at Madonna School,’" he said.

Using the adult Bible study curriculum "Seeking Truth" by Sharon Doran, Fisher adapted the program to fit the cognitive abilities of the 18- to 21-year-olds he teaches.

"I knew that it would give me more than I give them," he said. "I’m learning a different way of teaching to a different cognitive level.

"I reach fewer kids at a time now, and I may not always understand what they’re getting out of it, but I know my presence is more important than the curriculum."

Jay Dunlap, school president, said Fisher approached the school last summer with the idea, and "we were thrilled. It has worked out extremely well."

"He’s a man of great faith, a gifted teacher and he has a very compassionate way about him." And Fisher’s condition helps students connect with him, Dunlap said.

"There’s an instant comfort level that’s felt, and that’s when a magic can happen."

Fisher also offers his presence as a gift when he visits and prays with rehabilitation patients at QLI. "I give a smile and maybe they don’t feel so isolated."

He also tries to attend daily Mass and continues his contact with Creighton Prep, serving as a math tutor.

And he spreads the word about ataxia, recently speaking to the Mayor’s Advisory Commission for Citizens with Disabilities in Omaha and forming a support group – Nebraska Ataxia Inc. – with Dr. Linda Snider, a diagnostic radiologist with Methodist Hospital who also suffers from the condition.

Fisher, 49, first noticed symptoms in his early teens. His condition progressed slowly but became more pronounced in recent years, leading him to use a cane, then a walker, and now a wheelchair or motorized scooter.

Other adaptations included modifying the main level of the Fishers’ home, installing an access ramp, and obtaining a special van, all with the help of a Creighton Prep fundraiser in 2015.

Despite his challenges, Fisher sees his condition as a gift. "Without it, my spiritual life would not have accelerated at such a quick rate.

"I didn’t complain about my condition much," Fisher said, "because the body is temporary, but the spirit is infinite, so that played a big part in my dealing with ataxia."

"It’s important to realize that you don’t have control, and that when you’re suffering, you may be suffering for the good of someone else or some other reason," he said.

"But faith is stronger than cells, nerves or body parts," he said, "and I know God has conquered all, and Jesus is our victor."

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