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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.