The school bell rings a promise for the future of urban Catholic education

Second grade choir from Holy Cross School. (photo by Cliff Schiappa)

Second grade choir from Holy Cross School. (photo by Cliff Schiappa)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — For the past seven years, the School Bell Breakfast, a benefit for the Strong City Schools, has celebrated and promulgated Catholic education in the urban center of Kansas City. Founded as the Central City Schools Fund in 1989 under Bishop John J. Sullivan, the fund was fostered by Bishop Raymond J. Boland and then by Bishop Robert W. Finn. Renamed the Strong City School Fund, a Bright Futures Fund, in 2010, it has for 26 years provided need-based scholarships to low-income children in Kansas City’s urban core.

As Strong City Board President and Holy Cross School alumnus Bob Paredes said in his opening remarks, parents make sacrifices to send their children to Catholic schools. “The families of our Strong City Schools simply want that same opportunity: to obtain a quality, values-based education in the urban core.” More than $36 million has been raised over the past quarter-century, and helped more than 15,000 families access Catholic education.

The annual breakfast was again held in the Grand Ballroom at the Marriot-Muehlebach Hotel downtown. More than 730 were in attendance, including students, families and teachers from the Strong City Schools — Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Angels and Holy Cross.

Emcee Jeremy Lillig, managing director of the Bright Futures Fund, spoke of the work and ministry of the Strong City Schools Fund.
“I’m here today to tell you about results,” he said. “So what is it that we do? Our work is built on two major pillars: Strengthening families by building community and eliminating poverty through education.”

He said that since this school year began, 436 needs-based scholarships totaling $1,086,000 have been awarded to the Strong City Schools and more than 350 families received high school tuition assistance totaling $77,250 through the Honoring Family scholarship program. A new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for one of the Strong City schools was installed and the first new text books in 25 years were purchased for another school. New computer labs, technology and other physical improvements totaling more than $400,000 was completed in the schools, and 19 Strong City Schools alumni now students attending Archbishop O’Hara and St. Pius X high schools received a total of $76,000 in scholarships through the Richard and Olivia Mock scholarship program.

Lillig also spoke of the Strong City School partnerships with area Catholic high schools, including the Hurtado Scholarship program with Rockhurst, and scholarship programs with Notre Dame de Sion, Cristo Rey and St. Teresa’s Academy.

“Our students excel in our schools,” Lillig said. “They are challenged academically and we build communities that embrace the entire family. We offer emergency support to families in crisis. We are looking to provide more adult education: parenting classes, financial literacy, English as a second language, resume workshops and more.”

Lamar Hunt, Jr., founder of Kansas City-based Loretto Charities, gave a $25,000 challenge grant to the Bright Futures Fund — it was quickly met. The $50,000 will be used to expand the Early Childhood Center at Holy Cross, allowing 8 – 9 more children to attend. Aesthetic improvements are also planned for the center.

The Strong City Schools are dually accredited by the Missouri Chapter of the National Federation of Non-Public Schools and AdvancED. The Diocese of Kansas City –St. Joseph school district is one of only 30 diocesan districts nationwide to receive full accreditation from AdvanceEd, and the Strong City Schools received a commendation for their commitment to educating all students, of all faith traditions.

As attendees chatted over breakfast, the second grade choir from Holy Cross performed.

Over the years, numerous individuals have supported, advocated and promoted the Strong City Schools and, since 2012, each year several are honored with the St. Thomas Aquinas Award for advocacy for the poor and Catholic education. The 2015 St. Thomas Aquinas Award winners were James “Jim” O’Sullivan and James and Judith Budde.

O’Sullivan attended Holy Cross School in kindergarten, then Blessed Sacrament and St. Francis Xavier schools before attending Rockhurst High School. He earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and his Juris Doctorate from the University of Kansas School of Law. Currently serving as President and CEO of the Valley View Financial Group Trust Company, O’Sullivan has worked in the banking industry since 1986. He is a member of both the Kansas and Missouri Bar Associations and an appointed member of the Kansas State Banking Board. He has served on the Bright Futures Fund Board of Directors as a member and later as chair, and has served on other boards and in volunteer endeavors.

He and his wife, Kathy, a Catholic school administrator and teacher, have two children, Mary and James and a grandson, Giles.

James and Judith Budde moved to Kansas City in 1969 from Cincinnati when Jim took a position at Marion Laboratories. Judy pursued music and education degrees at Avila College. The couple’s three daughters attended Catholic grade schools, Archbishop O’Hara High School and Rockhurst and Avila colleges.

Recognizing the need for quality education for all Kansas City’s children, they advocated for it by serving on PTAs, school boards, parish councils, and the Strong City School Fund.

The Icon Award is presented to retiring Strong City School teachers who have served 25 or more years in Catholic education. This year the Icon was given to Linda Poull, who will retire from Holy Cross after 40 years of service, and Merlene Eads, who retired a few years ago from Our Lady of the Angels with 43 years of service.

The Dorothy Lambert Award, named in honor of a long time educator and the first lay principal of Visitation School, is awarded to a Strong City School teacher who exemplifies the mission of ensuring that children are taught in a Christ–centered environment so they realize the importance of education as well as the love of Jesus Christ. The 2015 awardee was Shelley Henn, a second grade teacher at Holy Cross since 1992.

A convert to Catholicism, Henn worked at Our Lady of Mercy Country Home in Liberty, assisting in caring for the elderly residents. With the help of the Mercedarian Sisters of Berriz, who run the Country Home, and Msgr. Arthur Tighe, former pastor of Visitation Parish, who hired Dorothy Lambert as the school’s first lay principal, Henn joined the Catholic Church. The compassion she learned working at Our Lady of Mercy Country Home inspired Henn to pursue a career as a Catholic School teacher.

She and her husband Bill have three children.

The keynote address was delivered by Bob Lesnefsky, president of Dirty Vagabond Ministries of Steubenville, Ohio. He has served as a youth minister in both urban and suburban parishes for more than 15 years. For the past decade, he has served as a full-time Christian Hip-hop artist and speaker, traveling to more than 100 venues each year reaching out to teens from all walks of life through rap music. He and his wife Ann have seven children.

He spoke of the positive impact Catholic schools have on inner city neighborhoods.

Following Lesnefsky, Our Lady of Angels alumnus Wondebecka Ashenofi, spoke of his Catholic grade school experience, how it prepared him for high school and how it still influences him.

A video of a family at Holy Cross School was also shown.

At the conclusion of the School Bell Breakfast, a 1964 1/2 Mustang convertible was raffled off to an attendee. Shawn Geraghty, Archbishop O’Hara High School alumnus, class of 1976, held the winning ticket, drawn by Bishop Finn and Lamar Hunt, Jr.

Geraghty was thrilled and told the assembled guests that the Mustang was his “dream car.”

A total of $329,526 was raised through the School Bell Breakfast. The majority of the money raised will fund Strong City School scholarships
For more information on the Bright Futures Fund and Strong City School Fund, visit

For more information on Dirty Vagabond Ministries, visit


October 21, 2016
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph