For many of its students, the K-8 Holy Name of Jesus School in downtown Los Angeles is a welcoming environment that feels like a home away from home. For a small group of students, Holy Name is the only physical building they can actually call home.
Perhaps no American city is more devastated by homelessness than Los Angeles; roughly 57,000 Angelenos are homeless. It goes without saying that being a homeless mother or father of young children elicits several daily anxieties. Thanks to Holy Name’s recent collaboration with the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter, however, 15 homeless families have been able to send their son or daughter to Holy Name free of tuition, allowing them to cross the fear of their children not receiving a solid education off of their list of worries.
Take Holy Name eighth-grader Joshua Hernandez, whose mother, Jacqueline Day, brought Joshua and his 15-year-old brother to the Union Rescue Mission in an effort to shield them from the violence and drug activity that has plagued Skid Row for so long. Or sixth-grader Victoria Barron and her mother, Maria Romo, who just last week were forced to leave the mission due to surpassing their allotted time limit before finally finding refuge with relatives in Santa Ana.
In the past, these dire circumstances have resulted in a revolving door of schools for both Joshua and Victoria. Now, thanks to the URM-Holy Name collaboration, Joshua and Victoria are firmly entrenched in a solid, nurturing Catholic school environment. And their parents couldn’t be happier.
“Being able to send [Victoria] to Holy Name has been a blessing; we are so happy,” beams Romo. “That was the best thing that could’ve happened to us, because she’s been through so many situations; she’s already changed schools five times. She’s always been an honor roll student everywhere that she’s gone, but at Holy Name she gets more individual help from the school. The teachers are wonderful there. They’re very understanding, and they’re willing to work with us and work around our situation. I love that about the school.”
“It’s truly a blessing,” echoes Day. “Even with the situation that we were in, it made me feel like something good has come from all of this. When you look at the school doing this and the donors who are making it possible for me to send Josh to school there, it’s like seeing God moving.”
And even at their young ages, both Joshua and Victoria seem to be fully aware that their new school offers them a unique opportunity that they’ve never been given before.
“Being at a Catholic school is different; I like how the teachers will help me when I need it,” states Josh, who is hoping to attend Verbum Dei High School next school year and wants to be either a football player or police officer when he grows up.
“Holy Name is different from other schools, because at other schools they don’t help you that much,” agrees Victoria, who wants to be either a computer technician or veterinarian when she grows up. “At Holy Name, they help you until you do everything correctly.”
Holy Name principal Marva Belisle organized the program with Deacon Jim Carper, the school’s director of marketing and development, and the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of United Rescue Mission. Belisle and Carper approached Bales about the matter last fall after being impressed with Bales’ guest speaking appearance as part of Holy Name’s “Icons of the Inner City Celebration” (which features community activists with encouraging messages for students).
Since the new program’s successful implementation at the beginning of 2016, Belisle has been amazed by the profound impact the opportunity has had on students like Joshua.
“When Joshua came in, he had some challenges adjusting,” recalls Belisle. “On a daily basis, I would have to speak with him, or teachers would have to speak to him; it was a new environment for him. Within the last three weeks, I haven’t had to speak with him one time. Teachers sat down with him for a week or more just getting him to understand the programs we were using so that he could work independently. And he just took off. He comes into my office almost every day and brings his computer to show me that he got a 100 percent or an 88 percent on his reading comprehension. And that’s a big motivator for him.”
“He’s more willing to learn now,” adds Day of her son. “I see a lot of changes in him behavior-wise. He went from never wanting to do homework or crying while he was doing the work to scoring really high. He wants to try and wants to learn. He’s been really excited about going to school. The school has really motivated him in his learning.”
The collaboration with the mission has encouraged the development of students like Victoria not only academically, but also spiritually. “As a Catholic myself, for [Victoria] to go to a Catholic school is a blessing, because she can practice her faith, both through the Church and through the school,” says Romo. “Her First Communion is coming up. That’s the most important thing to me: for her to have her faith as a Catholic.”
“Every Wednesday, the students go to Mass with our pastor; for some of the students, that’s the only time they get to go to Church: when they’re here at school,” adds Belisle. “We’re faith-based so the kids learn about God and learn about their faith. It’s a community. It’s a family first, more than anything else.”