By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Zachariah Taylor is the first member of his family to graduate from high school. It wasn’t easy, an uphill battle in some ways, but he did it, and is looking forward to his first semester at Avila University this fall. And he’s not the only one excited about going to college.
Cristo Rey Kansas City, which opened in 2006, celebrated its first graduation in 2010, with 100 percent of the graduating class accepted to colleges, locally and out of state, with scholarships and financial aid packages. Same for the Class of 2011, and now all 79 students in the Class of 2012 were accepted to college, with scholarships and financial aid packages to make it affordable for their families.
Cristo Rey lives its mission to provide “a Catholic, college prep education enhanced by an innovative corporate work study program to culturally diverse students with economic need.” And the mission lives even after graduation. Cristo Rey students also benefit from community support as they transition from high school to college, and not just a “Congratulations and Good Luck!” With an eye toward continued successes, church, corporate and civic groups have volunteered for several years to provide emotional and material support the young people need.
On July 19, the soon-to-be college freshmen returned to Cristo Rey for College Send-off Night, and exchanged hugs and handshakes with the mentors who had been with them through high school and will continue during the critical adjustment period as they start college. The mentors plan to have regular ongoing contact with their students, and to serve as sounding boards to help increase the young people’s confidence and independence.
Zach, as he is known, wanted to succeed at Cristo Rey, but, “The teachers and staff here at Cristo Rey gave me support, and then two years ago I was introduced to Steve Steddom.”
Steddom, vice president at the Harry J. Lloyd Charitable Trust, was familiar with Cristo Rey because his organization has provided the school with grants for several years. “I liked the fact that the school is co-ed, I liked the school and work system and I liked this setting, this place,” he said. “I decided to volunteer to help a young man succeed in high school and go on to college. Zach and I connected right away. We try to get together or talk at least once a week.”
Zach added, “Steve helped me realize that no matter what, there’s always hope. I needed some pushing, and Steve pushed me even when I gave up on myself. He didn’t give up on me and it paid off. It was a lot of hard work, but I think I did pretty well!” A shy grin lit up his face. “I received $35,000 in scholarships — in theater, academics and as the first generation in my family to graduate from high school and go to college. I received grants and scholarships from the NAACP and the Horatio Alger Association (Zach is a 2012 Horatio Alger Scholar). I also got $7,000 in student loans.”
Steddom thought for a moment. “Zach is a unique being,” he said. “He’s passionate about the theater and forensics. He’s shown a lot of creativity and imagination. There are a lot of different sides to him. He’s talented and even more, he’s not afraid to engage people, which is huge. Cristo Rey does a good job in encouraging kids to engage other people, both in academics and in business.”
Zach plans on getting as much education as he can. Some in his family were “negative about education, and I don’t like being told ‘no,’” he said. “I graduated from high school and now I’m going to college.” He looked at the light purple walls of a freshly painted classroom. “You know, Cristo Rey’s colors are purple and gold. Avila is purple and white. Purple’s a good color and I like the continuity.”
He’s already thinking about giving back when he’s out of school. “I want to go back to the kids in my neighborhood and around there and let them know that somebody cares and understands. I struggled for success, but I’m going to college. I want to help other kids reach that success. But for now, I’m ready to move on to Avila.”
But there was something else waiting for him and the other graduates that evening. Members of Christ Community Church, Ladies of Charity and the Plaza Rotary Club remembered their early days at college and recognized that many of the graduates were concerned about paying for other essentials besides tuition, books, and room and board. So they went shopping. Giant laundry bags were purchased for each student and stuffed with bed linens and comforters, a lamp, towels and other essentials of dorm life.
Each student was also handed a new backpack, filled with a graphing calculator, flash drive, notebooks, pens, paper and other school supplies. Employees of Garmin Industries purchased the back packs and filled them; not only relieving some of the college expense load for the students’ families but also providing the students with tools they would need to arrive at college with confidence.
The gifts —mentoring over the years, dorm and school supplies, showed Zach and his classmates at Cristo Rey that many in the Kansas City community support them and wish them success in the future.