The asphalt playground at Santa Teresita School in Boyle Heights is a little greener thanks to a new oak sapling planted during a Catholic Education Foundation celebration drawing students and staff from several East Los Angeles Catholic schools Feb. 24.

Honored guest, Archbishop José Gomez, chairman of the Catholic Education Foundation’s Board of Trustees, said in his welcoming remarks that CEF “is one of the great engines of opportunity and hope in our community,” providing more than $119 million in tuition awards to low-income students and their families since it was established by Cardinal Roger Mahony as a charitable trust in 1987.

For the current school year, CEF has funded 8,400 student tuition awards with $9.2 million for 2011-12. In East L.A., an area with 13 Catholic parish elementary schools and three high schools (Cathedral, Sacred Heart and Salesian), CEF has provided more than $1.6 million in tuition assistance in support of 1,467 students this year. 

“We have been supporting students and families here at this great school of Santa Teresita since our beginnings,” said Archbishop Gomez, “so it is appropriate that we come here during our 25th anniversary to make this presentation of a CEF ‘oak tree.’” Almost 15 years ago, CEF adopted the oak sapling as its logo, symbolizing characteristics of CEF recipients: deeply rooted, strong, productive and hope-filled.

While acknowledging that CEF’s awards are a blessing to the recipients, Archbishop Gomez noted that 8,000 additional students who qualify for assistance are on a waiting list. “We are committed to raising more money so that we will be able to help them as we are already helping so many others,” said the archbishop.

“We are investing in the lives of individuals,” he continued. “We are offering students a way out of poverty and a chance to become leaders in our civic and cultural life. And, we are investing in the future of our communities --- building stronger families and neighborhoods and churches and civic groups.”

Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose Mary Catherine Antczak, principal of Santa Teresita who participated in the tree-planting ceremony along with the archbishop and seventh grader Angel Ramirez, called the event a “memorable moment.”

“On behalf of all the principals, I thank you: the donors, the foundation and everyone who is such an important part in God’s work, a critical gift for our nation and Catholic education,” said Sister Antczak.

“We are happy to be here at Santa Teresita today where we are helping 117 students with over $100,000 in tuition assistance,” said Kathleen Anderson, CEF’s executive director, adding that all of Santa Teresita’s CEF students continue to high school where 98.2 percent of them will graduate in four years and, among those, 98 percent will go to college.

“That’s success,” declared Anderson. She pointed out that the oak tree sapling donated by Norman’s Nursery was planted near the new Santa Teresita School library, which was recently renovated by the Shea Foundation. “This tree will be here for more than 100 years,” said Anderson.

“Having Archbishop Gomez lead us in prayer and plant this wonderful oak tree in Santa Teresita in the middle area of all the Catholic elementary schools from Deanery 9 --- which has the most schools served by CEF --- these are very important events to be part of,” said Carolina Gomez, principal at Assumption School in Boyle Heights.

“Our Catholic schools, especially in our Deanery 9, would not exist without CEF,” said Msgr. John Moretta, pastor at Resurrection Church in East L.A. who attended the event with his parish school principal. “That’s why I came here today, to show our gratitude.”

Resurrection School principal Angelica Figueroa added: “The way the economy has been going, a lot of our parents rely on any type of tuition assistance, and the Catholic Education Foundation has been very instrumental in keeping our school open. Quite a few of our students receive CEF funding, 88 out of 246. Definitely, without CEF, we would not be able to continue.”

Resurrection seventh grader, Erika Garcia, commented: “I don’t think I would be able to attend without the CEF scholarship, and I am really grateful for that.”

Marisol Quintero, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Lincoln Heights attending with her eighth grade daughter, Jacqueleen, said CEF’s tuition assistance has allowed her two children to remain at the parish school after her husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, “which completely changed our lives financially.

“With CEF’s assistance, I’ve been able to manage to continue my children in Catholic education,” said Quintero. “It is a great help. I am so very grateful and so very proud to say that the Catholic Education Foundation has been a blessing in our lives.”

Her daughter added, “I feel good because I’m in the same environment I’ve been in for nine years. Everybody at the school is loving and caring and I’ve been given a chance to stay in the community.”

“I really believe that CEF has saved the lives of some of these children by having them be able to stay in Catholic school and go on to high school and college,” said Dr. John W. Given, a CEF trustee for six years. 

“When you hear testimonials from CEF students who have accomplished so much,” he added, “it’s very reaffirming and you know that what we’re doing is worthwhile and it’s very important to our city and to the community.” 

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