Call it divine intervention this past summer when 14-year-old Adrienne Usher had an email answered by Armando Carvalho, the second-year principal of Divine Saviour Elementary School in northeast LA.

The Pasadena teenager who grew up attending Catholic schools was looking for a way to make an impact in her community as she awaited the start of her sophomore year at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City. 

“As someone who values giving kids a good education, I realize what I have been fortunate to have,” said Adrienne, who attended St. Philip The Apostle School and Mayfield Junior School near her home. 

“I realized from Catholic schools they set you on the straight and narrow, not just with a great education but also a set of morals they instill in you.”

It was a friend of Adrienne’s father, Steve, who suggested the family meet with Carvalho. He invited them over for a visit that coincided with a parish potluck dinner.

Adrienne asked what help was needed. Carvalho gave her some ideas and showed her around.

The result was the simple act of launching a GoFundMe campaign called “Dollars for Divine,” with a goal to raise $25,000 for student scholarships to impact the 2019-20 school year. The fundraiser remains open for donations.

She admitted she did not know much about Divine Saviour, a small K-8 parochial school just over the hill from Dodger Stadium, where the Friday night fireworks are visible from a spot between the Golden State Freeway and Arroyo Seco Parkway. 

The school can accommodate some 300 students but has just over 70 enrolled, and hopes to draw around 100 as it starts the year as part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) network for grades one through five.

When school started Aug. 20, Adrienne’s benchmark was nearly halfway met, thanks to word of mouth as well as a story in the local Pasadena Outlook newspaper.

Funds have already transferred from about 25 donors, starting with a $5,000 opening push from Adrienne’s father.

“This project has hit home for all of us,” said Steve, who works in the hotel real estate business. “Once we met with principal Carvalho, we were very impressed with what he’s been doing. Her decision to work with a smaller school, where you could really see funds raised making a bigger impact, was also important. I can see this becoming an ongoing project for her and the school.”

Armando Carvalho is beginning his second year as principal of Divine Saviour School in northeast LA. (JOHN MICHAEL FILIPPONE)

Carvalho, who arrived at Divine Saviour in July 2018, quickly realized that with a tuition of about $4,800 a year, and a surrounding neighborhood he described as “working poor” with an average annual family income of about $42,000, scholarship help is vital to basically keeping the facility operating with some $120,000 needed annually.

A portion comes from the Catholic Education Foundation of Los Angeles (CEF) nonprofit.

The Shea Foundation has helped with upgrades for the STEM program with redoing rooms, training, and furniture.

As a way to make up the difference, the school has a bingo program that can generate about $25,000, but there remains a gap that needs any creative means by which Carvalho can develop.

And up stepped Adrienne.

“It’s one thing to just think in your head, ‘I’d like to do X, Y, and Z to make a difference,” said Carvalho. “You can try to help the environment and plant trees. But Adrienne is someone who understands how this works. She’s been out there to get others to feel the same way. It’s actually a much higher level of philanthropy that I wish more adults had.”

Divine Saviour is one of a handful of schools in the country steeped in the Servite charism, staffed by Order Friar Servants of Mary (Servite High School in Anaheim is one of its more well-known cousins). Children there pray the Service Rosary of the Seven Sorrows. The school’s basic guidelines are: Be safe, be responsible, and be like Mary.

When the Department of Catholic Schools introduced the new STEM opportunity, Carvalho said he asked for more information within 10 minutes. But he wanted to make sure it would fit with the wants of a community that has filled the school with about a 95 percent Hispanic demographic, split evenly among boys and girls, with Spanish being the primary language spoken by most of the students’ parents.

“It’s easy to go after shiny, new things,” he said. “We had to hold focus groups with the families and did a large feasibility study. If you live in an area where the parents want a classical education, maybe STEM isn’t a great fit.

“But this really does fit with the Servite Charism; think about how scientists and researchers never do things alone. It’s always a collaborative effort, and the STEM model fits.”

When people call the Divine Saviour main phone number, they can hear a recording that recites the school’s motto as a place where “children love to learn and learn to be loving.” Carvalho said his primary role is to stress how there is more family stewardship at the Catholic facility than what we might see with “our friends in the public schools.”

He said he emphasizes how Divine Saviour is “a safe place where people are paid and treated justly.” It also aims to change the perception that tuition is a hurdle for those who want their children to attend.

“We want to make sure everyone can afford a Catholic education, that’s my mentality,” said Carvalho. “A lot may perceive that private schools are only for the rich, but that isn’t the case here. Some pay almost nothing. We make it work and so many of our supporters make that happen.”

The Usher family, from left: mother Beatrice, brother Aidan, family dog Bear, Adrienne, and father Steve. (JOHN MICHAEL FILIPPONE)

Like Adrienne, who said she will continue the campaign with her Harvard-Westlake student body this year and look for more ways to keep paying it forward.

She said she already has realized the impact of her project going back to her Catholic school connections.

“When I went to Mayfield, we had a leadership program where I was a seventh-grader and we teamed up with kindergarteners to help mentor them,” Adrienne said. “I became close with one of those students, and I learned a couple of weeks ago he decided to clean out his piggy bank and donate to this. I think that’s just so super.”


Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.

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