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: Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

Lent and the art of fasting

Aaron Lambert

One interesting thing about liturgical seasons in the Church is that despite the fact they happen at roughly the same time every year, they still manage to sneak up on us.

Lent begins in just a few days, on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 26 this year. Never mind that most of us are probably just now fully recovered from the craziness of the Christmas season; it’s now time to enter what is arguably the most important season in the liturgical year. Oh, and we’re supposed to be extremely prayerful, reverent and intentional in how we approach Lent. Given all the other things happening in each of our lives, no big deal, right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone in feeling just a bit overwhelmed at the thought. But let’s take it a step even further and add some icing to that cake in the form of fasting (no pun intended). Fasting is an ancient practice that pre-dates even Christianity and is common to nearly all religions of the world. In fact, the act of fasting is mentioned more times in the Bible than baptism. In recent times, much has been said about the physical benefits of fasting — weight loss, stronger immune system, more effective cell regeneration — but it’s important for us to remember that fasting is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, one that’s meant to spool the thread which connects us to our loving Creator.

Admittedly, the rules for fasting during Lent have loosened up over the centuries; it’s not a stretch to say that in the time of the apostles, fasting was a hardcore thing for disciples of Jesus Christ to do. You see, back then, fasting during Lent meant fasting for all 40 of those days leading up to the feast of Easter. While many of us may tremble at the thought of not eating anything of true sustenance for over five weeks, there is something to be said in the spirit of denying ourselves our usual pleasures during the Lenten season as a way to draw nearer to he who can provide true nourishment and satisfaction.

The act of fasting can help foster in us three characteristics that ultimately make Lent not only a penitential season, but also one of renewal.

Asceticism
The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which means practice, bodily exercise and most especially athletic training. Essentially, it is the act of rigorous self-discipline and avoidance of overindulgence, with the aim of instilling in oneself a sense of self-control and virtue. In its most basic form, fasting is a type of asceticism; willingly denying ourselves the everyday comforts of life in an effort to unite our spirits more closely with that of Christ.

Of course, the practice of asceticism is counter-cultural in almost every way. We live in a world where our needs and desires are met on-demand, and to voluntarily abstain from one of these seems a preposterous proposition to the outsider. But it’s interesting, to bring back the Greek root of this word, to think of how the world’s best athletes implement this practice. Think of the intense training, strict dietary restrictions and long hours of work they put in the be the absolute best at what they do. Yes, it’s likely unbearably difficult at times, but they know deep down that their discomfort has a purpose.

Society tells us that suffering and discomfort are bad things to be avoided at all costs. But we as Christians look to the example of our Lord, who was willingly led to his death on Calvary, undertook unspeakable suffering and was made to feel like less than a man. Through his suffering mankind was redeemed, and because of his victory, we, too, can find redemption and renewal in our own trials. By practicing asceticism during Lent and giving up those things we find comfort in — sugar, Netflix, technology, or any other vice — we are not only reminded of the sacrifice Christ made for us, but we are strengthening the muscles of willpower and virtue that lead us closer to the Lord, and ultimately, true joy and peace.

Humility
“Humility is to the various virtues what the chain is in a rosary. Take away the chain and the beads are scattered; remove humility and all virtues vanish.”

St. John Vianney is quoted as saying this, and it’s a simple yet effective illustration of how all virtue flows from humility. To use a metaphor, if asceticism is what it is to, say, learn a new instrument, then humility is the marked improvement and mastery of that instrument over time.

By observing the Lenten fast, we are humbled rather quickly. Nothing makes us reflect on our own mortality and brokenness quite like the low grumble of a hungry stomach. And yet, by offering up this minute suffering during Lent and allowing the Lord to take it, it becomes apparent just how much we rely on him to not only provide the various provisions of our life, but also to provide meaning in our various sufferings. Mankind, for all its wonders and brilliance, cannot be sustained without the provisions of God.

From a more practical angle, there’s also no harm in fasting from food and technology to remind us of the many different walks of life people come from. It’s easy to take all the conveniences of our cozy lives for granted but Lent especially presents a great opportunity to remember those “least of us” who live in third-world countries, or even just down the street. Instead of buying two Big Macs for yourself for lunch, why not give one to the woman holding a sign at that intersection?

By maintaining a disposition of humility, we tap into the very core of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Freedom
So, through fasting, you have committed to a practice of asceticism for Lent, are reaping the benefits of staying humble, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. Now what?

Ultimately, there is a profound freedom that comes from fasting. Father Richard Simon of Relevant Radio said in a May 2019 episode of his show Father Simon Says, “Fasting is an exercise in freedom. The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord. Freedom is the absolute requirement for the Christian life. Most people think that freedom is getting what they want, but they don’t understand that they don’t want what they want, it is their passions controlling them.

“It is their desires, their hungers, their preferences that want what they want when they want it,” he continued. “The self is not free. The self is subject to this sort of barrage off weakened human nature, but fasting is about freedom.”

True freedom, as defined by God, isn’t the ability to say “yes” to your own desires whenever you want — it is the discipline to say yes to the Lord’s desires for you. Therefore, as we go through the Lenten season and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, we fast in remembrance of the perfect image of true freedom: Christ crucified on the Cross.

One of the lessons of the Lenten season is that we, too, are capable of achieving this freedom. By strengthening our will through the practice of fasting, we can grow in humility, from which all other virtue flows. In our humility, we find freedom to do the Lord’s will for our lives. And in that freedom, waiting with open arms, is the sweet renewal that our souls yearn for — renewal in the self-denying, humble and freely-given love of Christ.