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A special place

AUGUSTA, GA.-The only Catholic special needs school in the state of Georgia began the 2020-21 school year Wednesday, July 29. To be honest, classes at Immaculate Conception Catholic School never really stop as the school works on a 12-month/year round model.  Students from the ages of 3-21 attend school at the 107-year old institution affiliated with and across the street from Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Augusta. For the last four years those students have been young people with special needs, not only cognitive but physical. Immaculate Conception gives these gifted youngsters a home to learn and grow academically and spiritually without having to necessarily navigate the choppy waters of adolescent that is fitting in and getting along. "The kids in this school don't notice any disabilities," said the school principal and program co-founder Allison Palfy. 

 A Special Place

"This school is open to any child with a physical and cognitive disability. This is a safety place, our kids may not have a learning disabilities, but they may not necessarily fit into every crowd, so they are able to come here and be unique and be themselves. This is a real special place." 

The plan for this school to be transitioned from traditional learning to a special needs ciriculum began with an idea from the late father Jacek Franciszek Szuster, the former pastor at Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Before Szuster passed away after a long battle with colon cancer at the age of 47 on September 4, 2018, he felt there was a need for a place for Augusta's children with special needs, a place where parents could feel theirs were getting the care that they needed day in and day out during the school year. "He had the idea, the heart and kind of got everything going," said Palfy, who started the program alongside Szuster. A scholarship in Szuster's name was created to help families afford for their kids to attend school at Immaculate Conception. Some students and their families qualify for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, the only state-funded voucher program in the state specifically for special needs students. Palfy, with a catch in her throat, reiterated the school's mission: "The school is open to any child with a disability."

There aren't boarding facilities on or near the inner-city campus but that doesn't stop students from nearby Aiken, South Carolina for example, and other parts of Georgia from attending school everyday. Immaculate Conception also offers speech language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy which are performed by professional therapists from local hospitals. "We have a contract with the hospital and they actually send representatives to work with our students," Palfy pointed out. If there is a need for a student, there's most likely a solution at Immaculate Conception Catholic School. "I think this is a huge pro-life mission," said Debbie DeRoller, the school's Development Director. "We are here to not just help Catholic families, we're here to help an entire community."

Every Wednesday morning students and teachers make the 200-foot trip across Telfair Street to attend Mass at Church of the Most Holy Trinity. "They get to participate in the sacraments of the church and I think that's very important," said Palfy. For the non-verbal students Mass is made extra special by Church of the Most Holy Trinity pastor father Mariusz Fuks, who celebrates the mass week after week. His patience and care for the students makes the experience fun. "He does a great job of presenting whatever the Gospel or the readings are down at a level where all of our kids understand," said Palfy. "It's a lot of fun so we prepare our kids because he's very interactive with asking them questions and wanting their participation. He's very good with working with them."

"We've been blessed," added DeRoller.

The tuition at Immaculate Conception differs due to the specific needs of a student. "Before we started the program we looked at similar programs across the southeast, we didn't just pull our prices out of the air," said Palfry, who also doubles as the school's cafeteria manager, otherwise known as the lunch lady. In order to save money Palfry makes the school lunches every day and even earned her certification in order to meet state guidelines. Breakfast is not provided, but "there are plenty of snacks because we know kids get hungry during the day," noted Palfry.  

Sacrifices are made to have a school like this one in this community. "At the end of the day if someone has the dream to be here we do everything we can to make it a reality for them," said Palfy. "Money is important but that's not the most important thing." 

DeRoller shared a story of a single mother that gets help, along with the father Szuster scholarship, from family members and her church to pay for her child to attend Immaculate Conception. "Financially she's going to make sure her kid stays here," added DeRoller.

Ready for the school year to begin

A regular school day begins with morning prayers, announcements, and then class begins. "I love that we can pray together," said Palfry. Individual planning is done for students according to when they get to Immaculate Conception and where they are academically and intellectually. There are small classes that guarantee individual care. The average class size at Immaculate Conception is 10 kids, with each class having a state certified special needs educator and at least one para professional. Palfy is planning to have at least two para professionals in each class this academic year. "There's a progression of skill work and we start every kid where they need to start, hoping to move at a very fast pace up to where they need to be." 

The extra help in the classroom will better prepare the coming students for what will without a doubt be an interesting school year. The Diocese recently released a reopening plan that will have the school year begin August 10. Immaculate Conception, being one of a kind in the diocese in regard to its mission to provide a special needs education, will begin two weeks earlier. "If parents are not ready to send their kids back, they don't feel safe yet based on everything going on, we will provide distance-learning," said Palfy. "We are offering both options." In regards to COVID-19 safety precautions and requirements students will no longer be switching classes, the hiring of more teachers has made it possible to have the teachers come to the students. The classrooms and bathrooms will be cleaned more often, with masks being worn by teachers, temperatures being taken for all staff and students. "Right now we have to with the uptick taking place," said Palfy, who also taught reading at the school. All employees will be tested for COVID-19 before the start of the coming school year. Parents will not be allowed past the lobby. 

Along with the English, math, science, writing and the arts, the school focuses on preparing students for what's next in life. With many graduates going on to college, many others attempt to enter the workforce. What they learn at Immaculate Conception is geared towards preparing them for the rest of their lives. Or at least that's the hope according to the faculty. "Our goal for all of our kids is to help them become as independent as they possibly can," said Palfy. "What is always on our mind is real life, whatever that may look like." Students are taught how to properly interview for jobs, write a resume, how to cook, clean, how to do laundry. 12th graders can take classes on how to budget their money and how to not get into credit card debt. Palfy calls this "real world math."

 The unique experience students receive at Immaculate Conception is one that Palfry hopes doesn't remain unique. 

 "We had to fight hard to get this program started," said Palfy. "Once it got going people saw the benefits. I'd like to see one of these schools in very deanery." 

 

 

Basharat Arts Foundation gives St. Teresa's students the gift sight

ALBANY, Ga. - St. Teresa Catholic School vice principal and second grade teacher Linda Johnson saw it first. It was seconds before the others looking at the photo also saw what she recognized as the beauty of the photo, the beauty of that moment captured by photographer Steve McCurry. A pair of young boys, one Black, the other white, sat lazily in a hammock, wide smiles on their faces. Below their images were their shadows, similar in every way the boys were not, Johnson used that to express her feelings on the 100-plus images posted around the school. “This was no accident, it truly is a gift from God that this exhibit is here,” said Johnson, a mother of four who has taught at St. Teresa’s for decades. “We teach our children that we are all members of the family of God and this is what the family of God looks like.”

Johnson’s point: The boys may look different but just like their shadows they are more the same than different.

The Besharat Arts Foundation, based in Atlanta, brought the “Art in School: The Faces of Innocence” installment to St. Teresa Catholic School, Albany as the first of three series of photos by award-winning photographer Steve McCurry that will be making their rounds to the school. McCurry, the founder of ImagineAsia, a non-profit organization working to provide resources to children and young adults in Afghanistan, was pleased that the series of photos unearth such emotional responses. “I’m glad to be sharing my art and my experiences with those kids,” said McCurry by phone from New York Tuesday evening. “I think it is important for them to see other cultures and other kids who look like them.”

The Besharat Arts Foundation agrees with that premise. “At Besharat, our goal is to nurture empathy, that ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Our similarities can bring us closer to each other, or our superficial differences can drive us apart.”

Similar exhibits have been installed in 47 schools, 13 in France and 345 in the United States. “We all need to learn respect and understanding of different cultures, religions and ethnicities,” says McCurry, who spent summers at his Aunt and Uncles home in Atlanta as a kid and has a “fondness for Georgia.”

The photos at St. Teresa are of young people from as far away as Saskya, Tibet, Oaxaca, Mexico, Rome, Italy, Mandalay, Burma and as close to home as Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the photos the children are smiling and serious, playing and working, on land and in water, alone and with friends. They are kids just like the students at St. Teresa’s and that is what Johnson likes most about the exhibit. “Our motto is ‘One family, one mission, one hope’ and we are so grateful for this opportunity,” said Johnson. Of one picture of a boy from Nuristan, Afghanistan, a worn wool newsboy cap covering his head, one student said to her, “He looks like he could be my friend.”

St. Teresa’s Public Relations Coordinator Katie Jenkins, herself a St. Teresa’s alumna, has three children attending the school and thinks the exhibit is a welcome addition to the decor. The photos have been placed in both the middle school and high school buildings, in the cafeteria, hallways and right outside of the school’s main office. They have become a part of the school. “I think it is awesome for our children to have this opportunity,” said Jenkins. “The photos bring a lot of diversity to the school and we really appreciate the message the Besharat Arts Foundation is sending. It is important for the students to see how other kids live.” 

The exhibit will have a series of wildlife photos in the next installment and following that will have a series of photos focusing on art history to close the exhibit. Three private schools in Georgia have been selected to host similar exhibits. St. Teresa’s alumnus and Besharat Arts Foundation Board of Directors member Joe Scherberger brokered the union between the school and the foundation.

A photo of a student at his desk in a schoolhouse in Omo Valley, Ethiopia, a focused look on his face, brings viewers, teachers, administrators and students back to reality. Their kids in Albany are just like other kids from all over the world. They are students hard at work.  “It brings it back to the basics,” said Jenkins.

“We believe by exposing children to great art from around the world, they will acquire a gut-level understanding and empathy for the spectacular beauty of our planet and its people,” said Besharat.

Just kids and shadows. All one and the same.

 

 

 

 

Diocese sets August 10 date for parish-sponsored schools to begin academic year

SAVANNAH, GA.- The Diocese of Savannah is preparing to open schools August 10 with each of the 13 schools within the diocese having already submitted tentative COVID-19 safety plans for how they will be preparing students, parents, faculty and staff during what has been an unprecedented past couple of months. Benedictine Military School, Savannah (who will open for classes August 3), Mount de Sales Academy, Macon and St. Vincent's Academy are all independent and will have individual start times. Immaculate Conception, Augusta, the only special needs school within the diocese, will begin classes on July 29. As of Thursday, July 23 start dates for classes at Mount de Sales and St. Vincent’s had not been set.

A Zoom meeting that included Senior Director, Department of Catholic Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michelle Kroll and all 13 principals of the aforementioned parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools took place Friday, July 17. The purpose being to better get on the same page regarding the upcoming start date. "The schools have pretty much finished their initial plans for reopening," said Kroll during a recent interview with the Southern Cross. She explained that ideas ranging from how to keep water fountains safe for use to using disposal lunch trays have been presented. "We want to reassure parents that we are working to make sure the environments are safe. For me the two most important tasks are a safe environment and letting parents know that we are doing our best to make sure that kids are safe and personnel are safe."

Students are going to be allowed to physically attend school again because there will be less contact with the outside world, and thus less opportunity to potentially spreading the virus. That means less involvement with parents and visitors inside of the school buildings and facilities in most cases. "We want to be sure we are addressing those needs so that we can get back into some type of routine with children, because the truth of it is that we get kids for 13 years, from kindergarten to grade 12, and it's during that type when they learn the life skills that help them function well in society and to be able to navigate those social interactions. If we take away a year that's significant." 12 of the parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools have a preschool program. 

Social distancing will be an important part of getting back into schools as well. Some of the schools within the diocese will have an easier time than others due to their size. Kroll used St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, Columbus and St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School, Augusta, both big schools in comparison to others, and Immaculate Conception Catholic School, Augusta and St. Teresa Catholic School, Albany, smaller schools with limited space, as examples of how social distancing may not be conducted the same. "Social distancing may not look the same for those larger schools," said Kroll who spoke about moving desks and tables in classrooms around to better honor the six-feet recommendation from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Wearing mask will also be something that schools will consider making mandatory. "We are allowing schools to make that decision themselves," said Kroll. "I'm not going to tell them that they can't make mask mandatory. Aquinas High school, Augusta is starting out with masks, so let's see how it goes. There's just not always an easy answer either way to be honest. So we do our best to make good decisions based on the data that we have and how we understand children to behave during social interactions." 

Kroll went on to use examples of how well high school juniors and seniors, upperclassmen may be able to adapt to distance learning better than still developing children in lower school and elementary school. 'The foundational years, the early elementary all the way to intermediate grades, those kids really need to be in school," said Kroll, who is also a mother. "All of the initial data that we have has really indicated that we can do this in a safe way."

According to the CDC there are smaller percentages of children contracting COVID-19 (1.7%) compared to that of adult and young adults in this country. "We want parents to trust us and we want to trust parents," said Kroll. "Because if their child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep them home. That trust relationship works both ways. We trust you to do your part and we're going to do our part."

There is another option however. Though limited, there will be a virtual learning option for parents that don't feel safe sending their kids back to school. "There will be some [distance learning] depending upon the needs of the students and the ability of the school," said Kroll.  "It may not be totally online, but there are some online components. The only kids that we will be working with online on a regular basis are those children that have any type of auto-immune deficiency."

According to Kroll the teachers within the diocese are ready to get back to work in the classrooms as well. "I would say that probably the majority, I'd say 90 percent of our teachers are chomping at the bit to get back into the classroom. They understand the value, and they may have some underlying fears but they are willing to set those aside in order to do what they are called to do. I think returning to school is going to be very beneficial to everybody."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donna Myers, Trailblazer

Savannah, Ga. - Donna Myers (Oliver) walked to the corner of Abercorn Street and East Oglethorpe Avenue and pointed her finger north. She described her after school walk from St. Vincent’s Academy (SVA) to the bus stop on Broughton Street. She remembered it like it was yesterday. “I walked Abercorn to Broughton, and in front of Levy Jewelers I would leave the group and then I would walk down Broughton to Friedman’s Jewelers on the corner of Whitaker and Broughton, and I would get a bus there to West Victory Drive,” said Myers, the first Black student in the 175-year history of the prestigious all-girls Catholic school. “Then I would take that bus home to Liberty City, my neighborhood.” Myers, a retired Chatham County educator and a member of the SVA Class of 1967, doesn’t get a chance to visit the school much these days, but despite the time away, couldn’t help but immediately remember stories from her high school days. She continued reminiscing. “At lunch, we could come outside and sit over there,” she pointed to a ledge on the side of the school building. “Or we could go to the bookstore across the street if we needed anything.” 

First among Many

Myers and two others, Veronica Johnson and the late O’Linda Douglas, were the first Black graduates of St. Vincent’s Academy, but for the first two years of her high school career, Myers was alone, the sole Black student at the school in 1964 and 1965. Whether she admits it or not, whether she agrees or not, she is a trailblazer for the Black students that attended after she walked through the doors. Today it would not be odd to see Black girls dressed in the white blouses and plaid skirts of St. Vincent’s crossing Liberty Street on their way to class or heading to Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. In 1964 Donna Myers stood out in a much different Savannah, and for that matter America. “I went to St. Vincent’s with full knowledge that I would be the only Black girl in the school,” remembers Myers. “There was never a fear in my mind that I was less than or unprepared.”

A Savannah native, Myers likes to proudly refer to herself as a “generational Savannian.” Her father, Solomon Myers, Jr. is also a Savannian and attended the now closed Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School with other family members and Myers herself years later. Catholic school was in her plans long before she was born. Sister Mary Monica, a teacher at Most Pure Heart, had taught Myers’ father and uncles and then taught her. Moving over to a Catholic high school was the obvious next move for Myers, and it may have even been predestined. One day as she and her mother, a native of South Carolina, were driving around town and passed by St. Vincent’s, Myers remembered telling her mother that she would go to that school one day. Myers was oblivious to the fact that in the Jim Crow South, at least at that time, that would not be possible. A few short years later, following the Supreme Court’s 1964 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, she would be preparing for her first day of classes at St. Vincent’s, breaking the color line at the school for good. “I don’t think I was sensitive about myself,” said Myers about being the only Black student in school. “I was not self-conscious.” 

Asked if she was ever scared, she immediately responded, “I don’t have that kind of personality. This was the school my parents sent me to, and it was the school that prepared a young woman for society. Back then, you did what your parents told you to do, and St. Vincent’s was a school that aligned with their values.”

Ready for the Challenge

Myers has fond memories of her time at St. Vincent’s, readily admitting that she was received well by the nuns, the teachers, both lay and religious, and the students. A lot of what she learned about how to conduct herself came from her parents. Myers and her younger brother Solomon Myers III, 69, the oldest living Black graduate of Benedictine Military Academy (BC) and the second Black cadet to graduate from the school, were taught that they too had the right to earn a quality education. Academically the workload and expectations had not bothered Myers because the expectations for her to achieve high marks at home were just as high if not higher. “For me, there weren’t any academic difficulties,” said Myers. “I was the kind of student that would do what was asked of me. I never got in trouble growing up.”

Myers III remembers it being something his sister had to do and was “no big deal.” He said, “I don’t think it was a big deal to Donna and me growing up. To the adults, it must have been. Still, I don’t remember her being over-excited or it being a topic of discussion at the breakfast table.”

He continued, “I think it turned out to be a good experience for her. She got a good education and was prepared for college. It’s easy to be brave when you don’t know you’re being brave. She just went on there and did what she had to do. I’m very proud of her. She was definitely a trailblazer.”

Myers teased that her brother would be the one to get in trouble and that her father would refer to her as her brother’s “defense attorney” because of how she would plead his case. It rarely if ever worked but thinking back to those times makes her laugh. “

Fair Treatment

Despite being treated fairly for her first two years as the only Black student at St. Vincent’s and then as a junior and senior alongside Douglas and Johnson, Myers does remember there was a time her intelligence and dreams were questioned. A teacher assigned the seniors to write about where they wanted to apply to college. Myers wrote about applying to her dream school, Middlebury College, a private Liberal Arts college in Vermont and one of the best of its kind in the country. Myers was dreaming big, the teacher didn’t agree. She requested that Myers’ father come to a parent/teacher conference. The meeting was to possibly discourage his daughter’s high post-high school expectations. All that meeting did was further fire Meyers up. She would graduate from St. Vincent and attended Middlebury, later graduating with a Bachelor’s in French and Sociology Anthropology. As a junior, Myers earned a coveted spot in Middlebury’s summer language program, a graduate-level program for adults. “Those were real adults,” she laughed while thinking back to being one of the only college students in the program that year.

During her senior year in college Myers was just one of 16 Black students. Her experience at St. Vincent’s compared to four years in Vermont among a handful of Black students pale in comparison. “It wasn’t about my faith in the priests or the nuns; it was about my faith in God,” she said about her high school journey.   

Was it because she was Black or because the teacher didn’t believe she could achieve it? Myers isn’t sure, but she remembers what it felt like, remembers it like it was yesterday. “I do not feel that I was treated differently, in no situation was everyone, my friend, but I got along with everyone,” said Myers, who occasionally will attend class reunions. “The lay teachers were amazing; at no time did I feel singled out. I felt like I was just a kid.”

Myers came home to Savannah following college graduation and began a 40-plus year career in education, teaching within the Chatham County public school system. She became an administrator and a principal at Hodge Middle School before retiring. Some of the students Myers taught would raise funds for summer trips to Europe which gave her the opportunity to have them use the French they learned in her classes in the real world. She also spent years traveling to the old Soviet Union to teach English to teachers there. Sometimes she would stay in the homes of host families, most likely being the only Black person to ever have stepped foot in these people’s homes. Again she was breaking new ground and blazing new trails. “I enjoyed being immersed in their culture; it was fine,” she said of her four trips to the Soviet Union. Her time at St. Vincent’s Academy helped craft an exciting and impressive life and career.

“The experience at St. Vincent’s reinforced what my parents taught me and gave me real-world experience,” said Myers, who attends St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah.

“I am sure it was difficult for Donna and her family to make the decision for her to attend SVA in the 60’s,” said SVA President Mary Anne Hogan in an email to the Southern Cross. “Although I can never speak about a specific high school experience of any graduate, since the memories of high school are so personal, I pray she looks back fondly on her time here.”

She does. “Having done that alone for two years, I’m sure having that many years at a young age in that situation probably prepared me for anything, said Myers.”

And everything. Consider the trail blazed.









Grace Scholars, Inc. give families a lift towards valuable Catholic educations

Kathy Wood had another hour to go before she and her daughters, Amanda, 12, and Evelyn, 10, got home from another long day. Evelyn, otherwise known as “Evie,” is a dancer, ballet to be more specific, and has practice twice a week. The Woods waited in the car while she went through the paces with her dance troop. “The girls keep themselves busy, but they stay on top of their grades,” said Wood. The girls attend St. Francis Xavier Catholic School, Brunswick and have been since they began school. Kathy and her husband of 14 years, Donald, thought it was best for their growth academically and, more importantly, faithfully. The Wood family, residing in nearby McIntosh County, is Catholic and believes a Catholic education is important. “I think the level of education is better at St. Francis Xavier than would be at public school,” said Kathy. She attended public schools while growing up in New Jersey, South Carolina, and Texas. “Academically, St. Francis is more of a challenge. The variety of things the girls can do there, the structure and small class sizes give them an advantage.”

Kathy, a billing specialist, and Donald, a handyman, enrolled Amanda eight years ago with the hopes of being able to afford for her to go to school at St. Francis. No matter the cost, the Woods were going to make it happen. “We were going to push through and do everything we could,” said Kathy about paying tuition. “I wanted them to have the best academic opportunity they could have.”

The Woods heard about Grace Scholars, Inc. midway through Amanda’s Pre-K year at St. Francis, and the rest was history. “I had no idea there was financial aid for private schools like St. Francis,” said Kathy, president of the Athletic Booster Club at the school. Amanda plays volleyball, soccer, and basketball at the school and is happy to be doing so. “I like it because I have friends there and my teachers are all nice to me,” said Amanda from the backseat of her mother’s car. “The sports are lots of fun too.”

Without Grace Scholars, there’s a chance the Wood sisters would not be attending St. Francis at this juncture of their lives. “[Grace Scholars] has been a Godsend,” said Kathy, “because we wouldn’t be able to afford to send them both here.”

Grace Scholars, Inc. was founded in 2008 by Cardinal Wilton Gregory (then Archbishop of Diocese of Atlanta) and Diocese of Savannah Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland (then Bishop of Savannah) as a way to take full advantage of the School Scholarship Organizations (SSO)/tax credit legislation that was passed earlier that year. A 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Grace Scholars Inc., with the benefit of contributions from donations that translate to 100% tax credits, provides families with the financial lift that allows their children to attend some of the best Catholic schools in the state. According to the Grace Scholars, Inc. website, gracescholars.org, there have been “thousands of taxpayers that have contributed to GRACE.” The site lists the goal for the organization as follows: To afford qualifying families a quality education while providing donors with an opportunity to use their tax dollars towards Catholic school scholarships.

Eligibility for a Grace Scholars scholarship to any of the 34 participating Catholic schools in Georgia depends on a family’s income. The scholarship provides assistance towards tuition and average about $2500. The financial gift is good for the entire time the student(s) is at the participating school as long as the family can demonstrate economic necessity. For example, A family that is granted a $2,000 scholarship for their first-grader is eligible to receive that amount through eighth grade.

With offices located north of Atlanta in Smyrna, Grace Scholars services students and their families from all over the state, with 13 of the 34 participating schools within the Diocese of Savannah.

“The assistance is a gift to families so they may take advantage of the benefits of a Catholic education,” said Diocese of Savannah Superintendent of Schools Michelle Kroll. “The awards provide hope for families and the church. As disciples of Christ and faithful Catholics, we help parents fulfill their promise to Christ to teach their children to know, love, and serve the Lord.

“The body of Christ grows with each donation.”

Kathy and Donald don’t regret applying for a Grace scholarship. In fact, it was one of the best decisions the couple ever made. The girls made the honor roll last quarter. 

“I believe St. Francis is a good foundation for our girls,” said Kathy. Asked if she would recommend Grace Scholars to any other parents she said, “Absolutely, if you think you cannot afford to send your children to St. Francis you should check into the Grace Scholars scholarship.”

 

 

New Beginnings

By Rachel Balducci

Henry and Isabel started school last week. Thank you, Jesus!

Ever since Isabel started preschool, I’ve taken a picture on the first day of school with all our kids lined up in front of the staircase. The very first year we did this, all five of our boys were looking sharp in their school uniform white shirt and khaki pants. Henry had on shorts, part of the elementary uniform while middle schoolers Augie and Charlie stood next to high schoolers Elliott and Ethan. Elliott was to the right of Ethan since he shot up like a weed at the end of middle school. All my little duckies in a row, nice and neat and sharp.

Isabel was first in line, to the left of her brothers. In the picture, she sports a cute little green skort because she did not yet wear a uniform. It is all precious and a sight to behold my entire world, and focus right there in a neat little line.

As the years have passed, the number in the line-up has dwindled. When Ethan graduated high school and went off to college, we had our first year with just five in the picture. And that number has quickly changed since we’ve had four high school graduates in the last five years—the number varies on such a regular basis.

We saw so many changes in just a short amount of time.

The picture I took this year was just Henry and Isabel standing in front of the stairs. No more tiny siblings were standing next to the older, lumbering ones. Isabel is in fifth grade, and Henry is in seventh. For the first time in almost ten years, there is not a Balducci boy in our high school.

I took the picture, and Isabel asked if she could text it to dad and to the four big brothers, all in college now. Instead of sending it to our family group text, she sent it individually, and I got individual responses back from each of the boys. “Makes me sad,” said one of them. Another sent a crying emoji. One brother loved the picture.

How did I feel about it? I wondered, especially after seeing the range of emotions from my sons. We are down to two at home, two whose lives we fully keep track of. It’s strange and more relaxing and different.

It’s wonderful.

There’s a way I could well up with emotion and feel sad and lament the passage of time. I suppose I could focus on those years that all my babies were together under my roof, all going to the same school, on the same sports teams, and riding everywhere with me in my giant twelve-passenger van.

Those were wonderful years, of course! And even though life is much easier now, I really did love washing all those uniforms and making all those lunches (I loved it even when I didn’t!).

When I was a younger mama and so aware of the gift of this full house (even when I wasn’t!), I sometimes feared the future. I could not imagine these babies of mine growing up and graduating high school and moving away. Would they really leave me? How could this be?

And then it started to happen. And I survived.

And better than that, it has been pretty awesome. Of course, there are hiccups and challenging moments, growing pains, and moments of loneliness. I do miss my boys when they are away! I love these children of mine.

But! But, what is so extraordinary is how your world expands as your children get older. I love that instead of one small bubble that we all exist within, there is now a much more giant orb where we circulate. We have more interests and experiences and activities. The world seems more significant, with even more adventures to enjoy!

What was once so scary to me has now become a great joy. New seasons bring a lot of unknown. When I remember to trust in the Lord and his great love for me and my husband and each of our children, I can find peace and assurance that God is there with us as we go about our way.

St. Pius X lives on through the faith and dedication of its alumni

Savannah, Ga.-  Rex DeLoach, 83, doesn’t attend the St. Pius X Alumni Association meetings much anymore, even with the meetings taking place via Zoom. He has a good reason for that though. “I did attend the meetings [in person] for a while, but now I don’t have the capability to do that anymore,” said DeLoach, who admitted he’s not technologically proficient.

One October morning he met a Southern Cross reporter at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah to show off a picture of the St. Pius X Class of 1955. It was the first class of graduates at the defunct Black Catholic  high school, a school with deep-running traditions to this day. DeLoach is very proud of his association with St. Pius X; the retired United States Air Force veteran considers his time there crucial to his career success. “My time at St. Pius X, the skills I learned there, helped prepare me for what was ahead,” he said. About his time as a member of the first graduating class at St. Pius X, DeLoach said, “It was a new beginning, and we happened to be there at that time. I think some of the alumni have within them the ability to remember the past because some of the things we went through are hard to explain.”

On a warm Friday morning, DeLoach stepped out of his white SUV at the corner of East Broad Street and East Taylor Street wearing a gold and maroon St. Pius X t-shirt and matching cap. The back of the t-shirt read “Rex DeLoach, Class of 1955”. 

“It’s hard to explain how it is today versus what it was like back then,” said DeLoach. “This town was a lot different then than it is today.” The alumni association keeps alumni like DeLoach in contact with former classmates, something he especially enjoys now that coronavirus has further limited his outside contact with friends and family. His morning meeting with the Southern Crosswas scheduled at 8 a.m. to both avoid traffic and people. “I’m still in contact with a classmate that lives in Atlanta,” he said. “We went to school together from [the former] St. Mary’s all the way through high school.”  

The ties that bind

Those times bound the people that attended St. Pius X together. The same can be said for some of the people that worked in the school. 

The St. Pius X Alumni Association had a reunion in June 2004. The school’s last director Monsignor Fred Nijem, the retired former pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins, thinks fondly of the warm feelings in the room that night. Nijem remembers the community around the school being close-knit and familial. “Catholics made up the largest percentage of the families at the school, and the closing of St. Pius X was a very traumatic experience for them,” said Nijem. “St. Pius X provided an opportunity for African American students to matriculate into some top-level colleges around the country, and that was one of the reasons they were going to miss that school. It was a relatively small school, and it drew from all three of the (then) predominantly Black parishes in Savannah- St. Mary’s, St. Benedict’s, and St. Anthony’s. But, the school was kind of a meeting place where all three of those individual communities could come together.”

St. Pius X alumna Rhonda Miller-Williams, 71, Class of 1968, agrees with the community aspect of having attended St. Pius. “We all came from three missionary [elementary] schools, and some of our parents had difficulties paying,” she said by phone. “It was the most important gift I’ve ever received. Attending St. Pius enriched my life.”

Miller-Williams isn’t as active in the alumni association as she once was but understands how important it is to keep in touch with fellow St. Pius alums. She believes it’s much bigger than just occasional text messages and Facebook likes. “We have a responsibility as African Americans to remain in touch,” said Miller-Williams, a retired administrator and Sacred Heart Church, Savannah parishioner. “It is important for us to continue to affiliate and validate the historical aspects of our school.”

The communities that made up St. The Pius X student body, which had over 400 students graduate, have remained close, if not physically, then most certainly spiritually. Having attended St. Pius (1952-1971) is almost a badge of honor for the alumni. “It was a nice little school. We had fun there,” said Willis Shellman, (‘63) the alumni association treasurer. “We had so many good people come out of that school. We are just trying to keep it alive.”

Alumni like Savannah’s first Black mayor Floyd Adams, Jr. (Class of 1963) and author and former Savannah State University professor Dr. Charles Elmore (‘63) and retired Glynn County judge Orion Douglas (‘64) to name a few. 

The first alumni meeting of the year took place this summer via Zoom because of the restrictions on public meetings. Under less pandemic-like conditions, the alumni association would meet at Savannah Classical Academy. This K-12 charter school now stands in East Anderson Street, where St. Pius once stood. By all accounts, the leadership at Savannah Classical Academy is proud of its association with St. Pius X. It has been instrumental in helping keep the alumni association, which has well over 125 members, close to where everything began. 

“It’s a historic structure,” said Miller-Williams of the former St. Pius X building. “The most exciting thing is that our building is still there.”

“Our school was founded and staffed by Catholics,” says long time educator and alumni association co-founder Ormonde Lewis (‘63). “I see our Catholic legacy continuing today with our alumni association.” 

Close contact

Monthly meetings at Savannah Classical Academy, local philanthropic efforts, fundraisers and good old fashioned check-ins on fellow alumni are all a part of why the St. Pius X Alumni Association works.  “Our prayer, our Christian service projects and our concern for each other bolsters my faith,” said Lewis, who was also a former staff reporter at the Southern Cross.

Living in Orange, New Jersey, John Pyous, Jr. 81, (‘57) doesn’t get back to Savannah as much as he used to. Pyous is a property owner in town and would make the trip south every three months to check in on tenants and check in on St. Pius alums. The retired United States Army engineer enjoyed a 40-year career that took him all over the world. Still, he always found time to stay in touch, thanks in part to the alumni association. “I find it very satisfying, personally, because it helps me keep the legacy going,” he said during a recent phone interview. “What the alumni association did for me, instead of just keeping in touch with my folks that I went to school with, it opened up a whole big world for me.

“I wouldn’t have known all of the people I do now without the alumni association.”

Nathaniel Glover (‘71) agrees. Glover is part of the last class of graduates at St. Pius X and holds that distinction close to his heart. He, too, used to attend meetings and believes it is essential to remain in touch. “We stay together, we communicate, it keeps the world balanced,” he said by phone from his home in Pooler. 

The St. Pius X alumni association did not get an opportunity to host their annual “Pius Fest” this year due to COVID-19. The annual gathering that takes place on the third weekend of August is held at Savannah Classical Academy and brings alumni into town from all over the country. Shellman knows they missed an excellent chance to meet and greet each other, especially those that live outside of Chatham and Bryan Counties, respectively. He listed Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, Iowa, and Maryland as other states that he could remember alumni currently residing in. “People come from out of town, and we celebrate each class,” he said. “We are looking forward to having it next year; it’s a lot of fun.”

The alumni association has also hosted Christmas parties, with that being a time where people come back home to Savannah to see family, and the St. Pius X alumni is a family. Just ask them. “When I think about the entire St. Pius X experience, I think of family,” said Glover. “When you get older, you lose family members and close friends, so it’s important to stay in contact.”

 

 

Trio of IHM Sisters join St. James Catholic School staff

SAVANNAH, GA.- St. James Catholic School administration, staff, students and parents welcomed a trio of new staff members last week. Sisters Joan Felicia O’Reilly, IHM, Virginia Michael Scirocco, IMH, and Amanda Marie Russell, IMH, were introduced to the parishioners following Sunday Mass at St. James Church, Savannah, August 16. This year the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IMH) are also preparing to celebrate the 175th anniversary of their institution.

Sister O’Reilly, a native Philadelphian, will serve her second stint as Principal at St. James, she previously served as principal from 1997-2001 before being named assistant superintendent and serving a three year stint from 2001-2003. She is pleased to be back in Savannah after so many years and is looking forward to a new way of doing things at St. James. “I am very happy to be back, this is a great place,” said O’Reilly from behind her desk after school Tuesday, August 18. “I never thought I would be back but I’m happy I am.”

Sister Scirocco will hold the position of local superior while also assisting principal O’Reilly. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Miami, Florida, Scirocco is familiar with Georgia after spending time working at a Catholic school in Decatur (Ga.) from 1989-1994. She is making her return to the peach state amid a pandemic and understands this is a new set of circumstances she will be worshiping, praying and now working in. “I’m very glad to be back here in Georgia,” said Scirocco, who added that she enjoys the beach.

“It’s exciting to be in Savannah,” said Sister Russell, who has never worked in Georgia. The Doylestown, Pennsylvania native is looking forward to seeing the city’s many sights when things calm down a bit. “It’s good to be down south, I have been hearing from the kids about the many things to do here and their favorite places to eat and places to go,” added the eighth-grade Math and religion teacher.

A Catholic Education

Regarding a Catholic education and its importance both Scirocco and Russell believe it is their mission to lead children in this way. “It educates the whole person, the spiritual, the emotional, the social,” said Scirocco. “This is one of the hallmarks of a Catholic education.”

“I feel so blessed to be nurturing the faith in these young people,” said Russell, herself a young woman. “There is nothing like this educational experience.”

A quick smile and friendly demeanor, O’Reilly understands that her job as principal, particularly now, is just as much caretaker as it is educator and administrator. “I don’t know any other lifestyle or way of education,” said O’Reilly, who attended Catholic school from kindergarten through college. “A Catholic education helps build the students' relationship with God. If we are not doing that, we’ve failed.”

Partners with Parents

COVID-19 and the subsequent worries about how students will adjust to learning in-school or virtually, or in some cases both, can have parents and caregivers concerned. The same can be said for teachers as they re-enter the classrooms around the diocese with the usual way of doing things a bit different these days. En route to entering the office at St. James there are a number of opportunities for one to sanitize their hands. There are also signs around campus asking that students, teachers and visitors wear masks. Sisters O’Reilly, Scirocco and Russell more than understand the challenges ahead.

“We partner with parents so that we work with them, hopefully with the same values, same goals in mind,” said O’Reilly. “I believe this partnership implies communication. These p[eopel entrust their kids to us.”

Scirocco piggybacked on the communication theme. “Communication is key with parents,” she said. “It’s important to keep those lines open because parents are the first educators in their children’s lives.”

Let kids be kids

With so much going on in the world there can be added pressure on students to excel. Sisters O’Reilly, Scirocco and Russell, adjusting to their new surroundings aside, believe it is a major part of their mission to “Allow the kids to be kids again,” said Russell. “Just let them be joyful and silly. For my students this is their last year here and you want them to enjoy it together.”

O’Reilly agrees. “Try to keep things as normal as possible for the kids by continuing to make this [school] a stabilizing place for them. I can tell from what I have been hearing and seeing that most of the kids are glad to be back.”

“I think it is hard to look too far ahead,” said Scirocco. “We are going to take it a day at a time and do the best we can each day.”

Asked how those days will begin, Sister O’Reilly quickly answered, “Everything we do begins and ends in prayer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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