Catholic schools emergency relief fund: A ‘game changer’

Learning in a classroom has its challenges; learning from home, however, is a challenge all its own.

Third grader Emmanuel attends St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood Springs. Since the suspension of in-school learning many weeks ago, he’s been using his mom’s “burner” cell phone to try to access his school assignments. It’s not ideal, but it’s all he had. Emmanuel’s mom, Eladia, shared how getting a computer and internet would impact his education.

Everything would change because right now, on the cell phone, he doesn’t have access to sites that require the internet and can’t read the books on EPIC,” Eladia said. “It will help our family because he will be able to learn more. It will benefit Emmanuel and us, too, to be able to be online with his principal and his teachers.”

Many of our Catholic school families, like Emmanuel’s, were struggling to access their children’s distance learning content, putting the students at real risk of falling behind. Kathleen Peek, a third grade teacher, said, “My students who do not have access to computers at home are not able to view my lesson plans (and therefore complete the lessons), join class Zoom meetings, or turn in completed work.” For other students, the challenge is having only one device in the home when both parents are trying to work from home at the same time several of their children are scheduled for online classes.

“I have students who have not been able to attend Zoom meetings because families are doing their best to work and learn from the same devices. They have lost the opportunity to communicate with their peers in this isolating time,” says fifth grade teacher Sara Guerrieri.

Hard to track progress

For teachers, the challenge is trying to assess how well their students are learning when they don’t have access to technology.

Without access to YouTube videos, online lesson plans on parents’ web, and Google forms for assessment it is difficult to track the learning that is occurring,” says Katie Glennon, a middle school science and math teacher.

Now, however, thanks to the new Catholic Schools Emergency Relief Fund launched by the Office of Catholic Schools and Seeds of Hope, Emmanuel and more than 500 students across our schools now have access to computers, their lessons, and their teachers.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, holds newly purchased computers which made distance learning for the school’s students much more feasible. (Photo provided)

Sara Alkayali, Principal of Frassati Catholic Academy, says they’ve been making it work. “Our administrative assistant has been printing items for our families and coordinating delivery to further assist them, but having their own technology in their homes to attend Zoom meetings and watch video tutorials allows our students to fully access all of the quality learning our teachers are providing.”

A “game changer”

“This is a game changer for our students and their ability to connect with their teachers and classmates; these computers will allow the learning and teaching to continue during this pandemic,” says St. Stephen Principal Glenda Oliver.

In addition to the computers for kids, the Emergency Relief Fund is providing about 50 of our Catholic school teachers the technology they need to better facilitate their distance learning programs, improving their students’ overall engagement.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, expressed gratitude that is echoed by all of our principals who received computers for their students in need. “This donation is an amazing help for these families. We are so very grateful for the generosity of the donors.”

Much more than providing devices

The other critical piece of the fundraising effort was to help our Catholic school families — and staff members as well — who have been most impacted by job loss or cutbacks due to business closures, causing real financial hardship. This fund will allow them to apply for emergency tuition assistance or help with registration fees for next year.

Applications for help have started to pour in, with more than 250 requests in only the first two weeks. As the days and weeks go on, that number will likely grow exponentially. The really good news is that the first disbursement of around $110,000 has already gone out to schools to help families.

Hundreds provide helping hand

Jay Clark, Executive Director of Seeds of Hope, the organization that raises scholarship dollars for students in our Catholic schools, says that more than 400 donors came forward to help.

“With just two emails, we raised more than $600,000 and counting to help these students, teachers and families,” Clark said. “To have so many people rally to help Catholic education is another stunning example of the generosity in our community and it is testimony to a belief in what goes on in our schools. Our community continues to shine a bright light and inspire through its actions.”

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.