Terri Fitzgerald helped create places of respite for special needs children and their families, places that offered food, medical care, therapy programs and summer camps.
Fitzgerald and her sister, Christine Johnson, both of Omaha, founded the Children’s Respite Care Center in 1990. And more than 25 years later — after helping thousands of children and their families with multiple programs at two Omaha locations — the private, nonprofit organization has become Fitzgerald’s legacy.
She died Wednesday at her home after a 10-month cancer battle, said Amber Burk, a spokeswoman for Children’s Respite Care Center. Fitzgerald was 59.
Fitzgerald’s legacy will continue to inspire, said Mike Lebens, chairman of the board of the organization.
The successes of the children were her yardstick. She was remembered for saying: “Our children make progress in inches, not yards. We celebrate every inch.”
Fitzgerald worked with state health officials, charitable foundations and other donors to open and fund the two care centers. The first, at 88th and Blondo Streets, opened in 2004 and offers day care as well as overnight and weekend respite care. Increased demand for skilled care and therapy grew, leading to another center, with a therapeutic gym and private treatment rooms, built in 2014 at 138th and Q Streets.
“Terry’s visionary leadership built an organization that provides critically important services to children with special needs in our community,” Lebens said.
“We can’t express how much she will be missed,” he said, “but the entire community has been enriched because she was here.”
Fitzgerald was born in Omaha, graduated from Westside High School in 1974 and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1978 and a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1986.
She worked as a fifth-grade teacher at St. Bernard School before she and her sister recognized an unmet need in Omaha: day care for children with special physical and intellectual needs.
Fitzgerald served on Nebraska’s Foster Care Review Board and an advisory board for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging’s Respite Resource Coalition, as well as with a number of organizations that help families with special-needs children, Burk said. “She was passionate about children.”
Visitation will be 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, near 152nd at Pacific Streets, and the memorial service follows at 7 p.m. The funeral Mass will be 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church.
Survivors include Fitzgerald’s husband, John Fitzgerald, daughters Meaghan Walls and Kathleen Folkerts, two granddaughters, parents Joe and Edie Macchietto, all of Omaha, and sisters Karen DeHeer of Baltimore, Susan Hughes of Eagle, Nebraska, and Johnson.