Two vans filled with Boston College students departed for Mississippi on Feb. 27 to bring support and supplies to the oldest African-American parochial school in the nation.
The 4,000-mile round trip is being made to aid the Holy Family Catholic School of Natchez, Miss., which has served needy African-American children for more than a century, but is in danger of closing due to lack of funds.
Students and administrators at the School of Education have mounted a campaign to help the struggling elementary school, dispatching monthly care packages of pens, notebooks and chalk as well as two computers and $6,000 to date in contributions.
"Holy Family is in the poorest section of the poorest county in the poorest state in the country," said SOE Assistant Dean for Students and Outreach John Cawthorne, who has been overseeing the aid campaign. "They need our support and we are coming together to provide it."
The Holy Family School, opened in 1890 by priests of the Society of St. Joseph and staffed for many years by Sisters of the Holy Spirit from Ireland, was founded during the segregation era to teach black children. Today, all 101 pupils in grades K-6 are African-American, and most are not Catholic but Baptist, attracted by the school's strong academics and emphasis on moral training. Graduates of the school have gone on to become valedictorians and civic leaders.
But a chronic shortage of funds has put the school in jeopardy, according to Sister Marie St. Joseph Santry of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the school's principal.
Sister Marie, a Massachusetts native and former SOE graduate student, reports the school is short of such supplies as storybooks, puzzles, educational games, chalk and erasers. But she says financial contributions are needed most of all to ensure the school remains in session.
"I look into their little eyes and say to myself, 'I've got to keep this place open,'" she said. "It's important that these young children be allowed to be all that they can be."
Eighteen BC student volunteers are making the journey to Natchez over spring break accompanied by Cawthorne and trip coordinator Brian Ramos, a senior in the School of Education.
The drive to and from Mississippi takes about 48 hours each way.
Students are spending five days at the school assessing fund-raising needs, helping with building repairs and grounds beautification, and laying groundwork for future student-teaching opportunities.
Overnight accommodations are in school classrooms or an adjacent convent.
The volunteers are willing to drive thousands of miles to pound nails and sleep on classroom floors if it will help the Holy Family School, Ramos said.
"When push comes to shove, BC students really do care," he said. "They want to make a difference in the lives of others, no matter where."
Trip organizers said a main objective is to find long-term funding to keep the Holy Family School going.
"They've been serving the youth of the area for 108 years," said Ramos. "It would be a shame and a pity to see them close their doors because of a lack of funds."
Donations of school supplies or dollars for the school are being accepted at Cawthorne's office in Campion 104.
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