By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — When the school bell rang at 7:30 a.m., May 16, to call everyone to order, it wasn’t just children who rose for the Pledge of Allegiance. Parents, grandparents and individuals wanting to continue and strengthen the future of Catholic education in three urban elementary schools recited the pledge with school children at their tables. Thus began the fourth annual School Bell Breakfast for the Strong City School Fund of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
A partnership of civic, philanthropic and Catholic communities, the Strong City School Fund, formerly the Central City School Fund, has been committed for more than 20 years to helping struggling families in Kansas City’s urban core provide their children with a Catholic education. Since 1989, community volunteers and the diocese have helped more than 30,000 children attend Catholic schools through need-based scholarships totaling more than $23 million to inner city Catholic schools. The Diocese annually gifts the Fund with $800,000 to help fund the scholarship program. A program of the diocesan Bright Futures Fund, the Strong City Schools are Our Lady of Guadalupe, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Angels. This year, the Strong City Fund has pledged $1 million to keep Catholic education affordable at the three elementary schools.
Children from each of the schools, many accompanied by their parents, sat with those in attendance at tables throughout the Imperial Ballroom of the Muehlebach Hotel downtown. More than 500 people filled the ballroom that morning. Among them was Adrianna, a second grader at Holy Cross, who said she is studying the multiplication tables and learning about the life cycle of a bullfrog. She also loves to read.
KMBZ-Channel 9 reporter and fill-in anchor Maria Antonia served as emcee. She introduced Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn, who spoke briefly before leading the grace. He mentioned that the fund’s name, the Central City School Fund, was changed in 2010 to highlight and strengthen the schools in the urban core. The Strong City theme comes from Isaiah 26:1, “On that day this song shall be sung in the land of Judah: A strong city have we; he sets up victory as our walls and ramparts.”
Board members Diana Welsh-Struby and Jeff Weinrich presented two awards, the Dorothy Lambert Award and the Aquinas Award. The Lambert Award, in honor of the long-time educator and first lay principal in the diocese, was given to Denise Cummings, first grade teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Cummings has been teaching in Catholic schools in Kansas City since 1976. Her five children all attended Catholic grade and high schools.
The Aquinas Award, named in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of schools, was presented posthumously to Catherine Mueller, a Central/Strong City School Fund board member for 12 years, who died May 6. “We will miss her energy, her creativity and her commitment. She made a big difference to the lives of children and the city. We commend her to God’s peace and care,” Bishop Finn said.
A short video, narrated by diocesan Director of Strategic Planning Steve Hilliard, paid tribute to Mueller. “Cathy’s dedication was rooted in her childhood growing up in St. Louis. Attending Catholic grade school at St. Lucy’s and eventually receiving her bachelor and masters degrees at St. Louis University.”
Hilliard continued: Cathy worked for IBM Corporation for 36 years before becoming Vice President of Customer Experience at the Cerner Corporation. “A job title very befitting to Cathy’s personality. Understanding the plight of others and working to improve it.
“Cathy’s passion was palpable. It was almost as if you could reach out and grab her hand and she would lead you on a journey of joy, peace and charity. This quest consumed every facet of her life: she was a voracious reader, she loved mysteries, always seeking the truth, serving on the Board of Trustees at Avila University, the First Hand Foundation at Cerner … helping young people get a quality education just as she did.
“In addition to education, Cathy loved her family. It was a family beyond the traditional definition of family. It encompassed people all over the world. Literally … if you knew Cathy you were part of her family.
“In Matthew chapter 25 it says, ‘…whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do unto me.’ This passage was made manifest in Cathy’s life. She will continue to inspire, and her spirit will continue to breathe life into those who remember her and to those who will benefit from her legacy.”
The Aquinas Award was accepted for Mueller by Vonzelle Armstrong of Cerner Corporation.
A video narrated by Holy Cross principal Jean Ferrara introduced the Strong City Schools and some of its students. The video concluded with Holy Cross kindergartner Elvin Luu singing, This Little Light of Mine, the first song he had learned in English.
Two students who had benefitted from the Central/Strong City School Fund tuition assistance gave their perspectives of Catholic education. Yak Nak, who recently graduated from Holy Cross School, spoke of the education, and the acceptance he and his family received at Holy Cross. The Nak family had fled the terror and genocide of Sudan, and when they arrived in Kansas City, they were confused, scared and could speak little English. Yak says he now feels confident and ready to attend high school. His older sister, Madalena Nak, graduated from Holy Cross in 2006 and was in the first graduating class of Cristo Rey Kansas City High School in 2010. She won a scholarship to Creighton University, where she will be a junior in the upcoming academic year. She spoke of the influence Holy Cross and Cristo Rey had had on her, academically and in her career plans. She will soon start preparing to take the LSAT, the entrance exam for law school. She ended her short talk by thanking her mother for all she had done.
The key note address was given by Father Don Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish. His remarks focused attention on Our City, Our Neighborhoods and Our Catholic Schools.
The many individuals and corporations represented contributed $100,000 to the Strong City School Fund following the School Bell Breakfast.
The grade school students returned to Holy Cross, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Angels schools to read, study religion and math, language arts, social studies and, in Adrianna’s case, learn more about the life cycle of the bullfrog.