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A better future: Catholic Education Foundation opens doors for students in need

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Principal Alex Chacon poses for a photo at Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights. This week, during Catholic Schools Week, Angelus is highlighting Chacon and the Catholic Education Foundation. CEF is celebrating 30 years of service to the community this year. (photo/Victor Alemán)

A recent parent meeting at Salesian High School in Boyle Heights ended with a mother pulling school principal Alex Chacon aside and breaking down in tears. Her child is a student at the school, but the family needed help — they were struggling financially to keep their child in the Catholic high school.

“It’s a tough conversation for people to have,” said Chacon. “People don’t want to let down their guard and show what’s happening at home.”

Unfortunately, according to Chacon, many times this conversation comes too late and the parents have already decided that their child has to leave the school. The situation takes Chacon back to his own youth and the struggles and sacrifices of his parents to provide him and his younger sister with a Catholic education.

Irma and Lupe Chacon migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1970s to pursue the American dream. They rented a house in Boyle Heights and dreamed of providing the very best for their future children.

They enrolled Alex into public school, but Irma always had the dream of enrolling him in the parish elementary school. They worked long, hard hours and sacrificed while providing a faith-filled home for the children.

“When I was in third grade my mother began to notice that I was getting into some trouble,” Chacon recalled. As a result, he began his fourth grade year enrolled at Santa Teresita, a Vision of Hope school run by the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.

“It was definitely a sacrifice,” he said referring to the cost. “I tried very hard to put myself in a position that I could continue my education at a Catholic high school.”

The transition to Salesian High School was difficult financially due to the much higher tuition costs. “My parents knew it would be a sacrifice, but ultimately they knew it was the right place for me,” Chacon said. He got involved in activities and athletics, but devoted much of his time to study and his faith life. And then his situation became more difficult.

After years of renting in Boyle Heights, the Chacon’s purchased a home about 15 miles away. The freshman had a choice. He could attend a new school in South Los Angeles, or continue attending Salesian. While it would mean a long ride on two buses to get there, Chacon chose Salesian. And then his situation became even more difficult.

His father Lupe, a welder, found himself out of work. Alex accompanied his father to help on some small jobs, not realizing at the time that these weren’t side jobs for extra money. These were to pay for their schooling and food on the table. Alex recalled the frustration in his father’s face as days came and went without work.

There was now open talk of maybe transferring Alex to a public school.

“That’s when the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) jumped in,” said Chacon. “My parents were really struggling, and my principal made a call and submitted an application and I was provided with the opportunity to receive an award.”

That financial assistance from CEF changed the course of Chacon’s life.

The mission of CEF is to provide tuition assistance to the most financially deserving students attending Catholic elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, CEF was established as an independent charitable trust in 1987 by Cardinal Roger Mahony, with initial support from a core team of prominent business and community leaders in Los Angeles.

CEF provides tuition assistance based on financial need, with awards of $1,000 per student for pre-K and elementary school, and $2,000 per student for high school. CEF aims to help support children receive a Catholic education, to help “empower students for the rest of their lives.”

According to the CEF website, 100 percent of CEF-supported students matriculate to high school, 98 percent graduate high school and 98 percent of those high school graduates are accepted to a college or four-year university.

“If not for the CEF award, I don’t know that I would have been able to stay at Salesian and then to fulfill my dream of going to college,” said Chacon. “That was something that I really needed at the time. I had so much gang activity around me it was good to have parents that were always supportive.”

With the mentoring help of his guidance counselor at Salesian, Chacon was accepted to Georgetown University for undergraduate studies, becoming the first in his family to attend college. He went on to complete his master’s degree at Loyola Marymount University. Chacon proudly noted that Catholic education covered every phase of his educational experience.

Chacon’s journey has taken him full circle back to his roots. He attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as an escape, to see what else was out there in the world outside of Los Angeles. Today finds him right back where he received the CEF award that helped propel his dreams.

As principal at Salesian, Chacon now reviews every assistance application and speaks with parents in need of help, like the tearful mother who pulled him aside at the parent meeting. “I tell parents as much as I can, that the fact that you need assistance should not be embarrassing, just communicate with us and we’ll figure something out,” he said.

Chacon estimates that 95 percent of students at Salesian receive some type of financial assistance, with about 35 percent of students receiving awards from CEF. “In the community we serve, if it wasn’t for CEF we would lose a lot of students. So it’s a real key part of our success to be able to maintain a Catholic school education for students that wouldn’t be otherwise able to afford it,” Chacon noted.

“With some of the things that our students go through today, I realize how important it is for me to step up and for my staff to step up and be sure that we are being as supportive as we can to all of our students,” he said. “It’s a difficult journey coming from a tough neighborhood, and if you don’t have that support at home for one reason or another, it’s even tougher. Education becomes the last thing on your mind. Survival becomes the top thing for you.”

Chacon thinks about his own journey often when he speaks with his students.

“I realize how much I owe to [CEF]. When you are a student it is really difficult to be able to understand the significance of something like that,” he said. “It might not seem like a ton of money, but whatever that award amount it has led to a domino effect of all these doors opening for me and I’m forever indebted to the school, to CEF, to the Dominican sisters for providing me with all of these opportunities. Every day I wake up and I’m just amazed that all of this is really happening. It’s great.”

Donations to the Catholic Education Foundation can be made at cefdn.org

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