Mercy Special Learning Center

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

When children with special needs pass through the doors of Mercy Special Learning Center in Allentown they enter a new world, a place designed especially for them. They are not pressed to fit into that school world; from the beginning of the day until its end, teachers make sure that world adjusts to their special needs, encouraging them and helping them to reach as high as they can, despite their limitations.

Mercy Special Learning Center is the only private, non-residential school for the intellectually and/or developmentally disabled in the Lehigh Valley. It makes an enormous difference in the children’s lives.

“A miracle happens here every day,” said Bridget L. Muehlenkamp, principal, as she conducted a tour of the classrooms, the gym and the cafeteria. Everywhere were children, some young, some old, and busily engaged in social and learning activities, chattering and smiling as they stretched their abilities, either working with familiar objects or facing new challenges. They bustled here and there and, best of all, they looked happy.

“We don’t make the child fit the program; we make the program fit the child,” said Muehlenkamp.

Muehlenkamp has been principal since 2002 and taught at Mercy for 25 years before moving into her leadership role. Her affection for the students and her devotion to the school was evident as she walked through the building and paused before a collection of small drawings used by non-verbal children to express their needs. For example, those children choose their luncheons by selecting cards bearing the symbol of a sandwich, a slice of pizza or a glass of milk.

The children at Mercy all have intellectual and/or developmental needs. The center establishes individual objectives for each child and throughout the school year teachers help them to meet those new standards. The faculty includes eight lay teachers and 10 assistants. They create what is clearly a nurturing environment – and a colorful one. Bright stars and streamers are suspended from ceilings, colorful decorations dance along the hallways, and one classroom is even fitted out as a tropical Treasure Island.

There is a busy-ness, a sense of purpose throughout the school, as children work on their own projects or team up for group activities.

The center’s mission is “to educate the whole child in the areas of physical, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development.” Eleven pre-schoolers are enrolled in the Mini Mustangs program and 51 students, aged 5 to 21, take part in the regular program at the center.  The school is operated by the Diocese of Allentown, and as it is a Catholic school, religion is part of the curriculum. About half the children are of other faiths. The school day opens with prayers and the children learn liturgical music. “They love their music,” said Muehlenkamp. The center prepares Catholic students for First Communion and Confirmation.

All children attend a daily religion class and visit the school’s chapel during the week. The stained glass windows in the chapel reveal images of former students. “I remember everyone of them,” said Muehlenkamp.

Mercy students come from 15 school districts in Lehigh, Northampton and Monroe counties and in most cases transportation is provided by their school districts. In addition, Mercy operates a state-licensed day program, TLC, for adults whose disabilities prevent them from working either in a competitive or sheltered work environment.

The center’s beginnings in 1954 were humble. Then called The Academy of Our Lady of Mercy, it occupied only four rooms in St. Martha’s House in Sacred Heart Parish, where the Sisters of Mercy taught 22 children. The school moved to its present building at 830 South Woodward St. in 1962 and the name was changed to Mercy Day School. Over the years the physical plant has been expanded, the staff and student body have grown and another name change to Mercy Special Learning Center occurred in 1988 to “more clearly define the school’s mission.”

Life outside the walls is important at Mercy, too, and there’s an active in-school and after-school enrichment program with field trips to the community, including bowling, visits to Christkindlmart and to restaurants, swimming at the Rodale Aquatic Center, or visits to the Parkettes National Gymnastics Training Center.

Students over eight years old train for and take part in the Lehigh County Special Olympics. The Mini Mustangs gather each month with residents from Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital for joint activities and some children partner with buddies at Allentown Central Catholic High School.

Students practice weekly for the school’s Tone Chime Choir. Dance classes are popular with school dances held three times a year and topped off with a spring prom open to students who are 16 years old as well as alumni. The children also love performing and Muehlenkamp says the center’s annual Christmas show “packs them in.”

Further information is available on the center’s web site,

Mercy Special Learning Center is partially funded by the diocese, but relies heavily on donations from the community. Thanks to the generosity of the United Way, corporate sponsors, trusts and grants, private donors and churches, cultural and professional groups as well as individuals Mercy can continue its mission.  The Center’s biggest annual fundraiser is a dinner gala and auction that last year produced more than $57,000.

This year’s gala will be held November 2 at DeSales University. If you would like to donate your time, talent or resources, please visit the Mercy Special Learning Center website at and click on the events tab.

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