With a little help from Seeds of Hope, student gets Catholic education

Roxanne King

Greg and Bridget Agwu, whose Catholic roots run deep to their native country of Nigeria, immigrated to the United States to better their education. And when their four sons were born in Denver they knew giving them a Catholic education would be their first priority as a family.

They scrimped and saved, seldom ate in restaurants, worked bingo and volunteered at each school when their boys attended Loyola School until it closed in 2009, then Blessed Sacrament and finally Regis Jesuit High School.

The two oldest sons, Nnaoma, 20, and Uche, 18, graduated from Regis Jesuit and Chibueze, 16, and Chidera, 15 resume classes there in the fall. Nnaoma attends Santa Clara University where Uche begins classes in September.

But none of the boys would have been able to attend Catholic schools without tuition assistance from Seeds of Hope, the family says.

“Without Seeds of Hope our sons wouldn’t have been able to get a Catholic education and the moral standards that mean so much to us,” said Greg Agwu. “We did everything we could but without the help, our children would have had to go to public schools.”

Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust began in 1993. The nonprofit provides tuition assistance to working poor families attending 11 Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. Many families face a financial challenge because annual tuition for kindergarten through eighth-grade is about $4,500 per student.

The families all pay what they can and volunteer at the schools for such things as cafeteria clean-up and fundraising events.

“We work closely with each family on how much they can pay and no one gets full coverage,” said Natalie Mesko, executive director. “The parents have ownership and because of that they work closely with their children on their academic progress.”

The commitment from the families includes traveling long distances to get their children to the schools, Mesko said. One school has students from 27 different zip codes, she said.

“A student’s zip code should not define their ability to receive a Catholic education,” Mesko said. “Once they get into a school they find it is a community that cares and they get to know the faculty. We do whatever we can to keep the child in the school.”

Since 1993, the organization has helped more than 14,000 students and raised more than $24 million. The business community has helped through three annual events but the majority of donations come from individuals, Mesko said. She welcomes any future corporate sponsorships and aid from the city’s professional athletes.

“It is wonderful the generosity of Catholics in the pew and non-Catholics who see the value of a Catholic education especially for inner-city kids,” Mesko said. “The beauty of our donors is that they just believe in the mission of a Catholic education. They are not donating to get their name on a building or for front row seats at a concert. They are so humble and want nothing in return.”

The Agwu couple has had ownership in their sons’ education from day one. They were married at Loyola Parish and their sons received the sacraments of baptism, holy Communion and confirmation at the parish. When the school closed, they transferred to Blessed Sacrament where Greg was hired as a math tutor after he was laid off at Denver Health Medical Center, where Bridget works as a nurse.

“As I get older, I see how past things have led to where we are today,” Uche said. “If we didn’t have Seeds of Hope we wouldn’t have been able to attend Loyola or Blessed Sacrament and that helped us to get to Regis. We would not have met all the people who have impacted our lives.”

Seeds of Hope does not provide financial assistance for high school students but the Agwu sons have been able to get scholarships. This summer, Uche had an internship with Kiewit Construction Company through the help of a Regis Jesuit counselor. He learned more about mechanical engineering, which may become his major at Santa Clara.

“Regis was such a great experience not just academically but they prepare us as people to want more spiritually and mentally,” Uche said.

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.