An unexpected downpour of rain certainly made it a day for the fishes, but finned-friends were hard to find at the annual Blessing of the Animals at Immaculate Conception/Annunciation (ICA) School in Monrovia. Instead, a remarkable number of turtles vied with canines for top-represented animal at the critter ceremony that also welcomed gerbils, birds, lizard, bunnies and even a snake.In the compact hall at Immaculate Conception, students from both campuses gathered to have their pet blessed and to share their animal buddies with classmates. The controlled chaos made for a joyous celebration marked with an occasional bark and a whisker twitch but more oohs and ahhs from students and their parents along with faculty and staff.Deacon Mike Salcido officiated at the ceremony and, with care and interest, moved through the crowds asking students about their pets before blessing them and their human companions. “Through the years, I have blessed everything from sea monkeys to horses,” he said. “I always look forward to this day.”When students finally said goodbye to their animals (which the parents took back home), it wasn’t the end of their time together. This was just the beginning of their monthly Joint Campus Day which unites the children of this one school, two campus scenario.Last year, the two schools chose to merge their resources, creating two campuses: the elementary school (grades K-4) at Immaculate Conception and the middle school (grades 5-8) at Annunciation. This year, about 150 students call ICA their school.The merging was not without its challenges. Parents as well as students and faculty had to adapt to new classrooms, a separate school schedule and two offices, as well as two temporary co-principals.This year, however, a new principal has picked up the challenge of creating a unified Catholic education identity despite the nearly three miles that separate the campuses.“It’s a unique situation and I can see the benefits of two campuses,” said Principal Norma Moreno, adding that since the merger, each school has more space for dedicated science, music and art rooms. “The downside is that we don’t get to see each other as an entire school.”Enter the concept of Faith Families and Joint Campus Days. Students at all grade levels are matched with students of all ages into one Faith Family. As a family, they get together regularly during their monthly Joint Campus Day for fun, fellowship and learning. The idea was introduced last year, and Moreno is fully behind the concept. It’s a day without homework or regular classes, but, rather as Moreno said, “It’s a day for building community and creating camaraderie. And our parents are a big part of the execution and support.”Moreno sees the day as a way for the school to embrace its Catholic identity. “Our faith is not just symbols and signs, but a real life experience of God with us,” she said. For example, before the Blessing of the Animals in honor of the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the entire student body attended Mass at Immaculate Conception, (Next month they will be at Annunciation.) where both pastors celebrated Mass — another sign that despite the two buildings, they are one school. After the Blessing of the Animals, the students participated in a living rosary and worked together on animal-themed activities. In addition, each Joint Campus Day has a Christian Service component, and for October, students were encouraged to bring pet food, treats and cat litter to be donated to the local humane society.“Our goal is to make the day fun and yet meaningful as we focus on our religious identity, that’s the heart of our school,” said third grade teacher Vivian Vasquez who planned most of the day’s activities. “We like to remind our students to give back in all they do.”So far the Joint Campus Day has made an impression with the students. “I already think of it as a tradition,” said seventh grader Joelyn Valencia who has witnessed the school changing over the years. “It’s real nice for us to see the little kids because we miss them.”Classmate Megan Goodson surveyed the excited young students skipping about at the Blessing of the Animals. “It’s just like we are all one family,” she said, “and it’s good we get to be with our brothers and sisters.”Each school (along with volunteer teachers) takes turns hosting the Joint Campus Day and reoccurring annual themes are becoming evident for planning and organizing. September honors Grandparents and Special Adults, November is All Saints Day (kids get to dress as saints) and December revolves around Mary and the Feast of Immaculate Conception. Driving back and forth between campuses, attending two assemblies a week, Moreno admits, “This year will certainly be a challenge, but I’m excited. I have a lot of support, help with our newsletter and website. And these kids are great — very well behaved and considerate. Plus, the parents are amazing. They are a big part of why the school still exists.”Acknowledging that “yes, last year was pretty hard,” parent Alexandra Razo said that “things seem to be working on track. I’m happy with what I’ve been seeing here and these [Joint Campus Days] are nice opportunities for kids to be with each.”“I think what making this situation work is that we have a new principal who is excited, easy to work with and who is amazing,” adds parent Adriana Huitron who serves on the PTO and is a room parent, among other duties. “Sure, we can always use more help, especially with the challenges ahead,” she said. “But I’m confident with what I see happening right now. It feels like we are going in the right direction. We want our school to work for all of us.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/1014/sgica/{/gallery}