Catholic Courier

Posted: January 30, 2017

Courier photo by Jeff Witherow

Sixth-graders Marguerite Kesinge (left) and Jahka Ley participate in a class exercise at Rochester’s Holy Cross School Jan 24. The school participates in a program that helps refugee children attend Catholic schools.

School helps educate refugee children

By Annette Jiménez/Catholic Courier

ROCHESTER -- Three years ago in the middle of her third-grade year, Jehka Ley moved from a city school to Holy Cross School, where she said she quickly adapted to the new, smaller environment.

"It was not that hard," she said of the transition during a Jan. 10 interview at Holy Cross. "I made some new friends here."

Those friendships helped her feel at home at her new school, she said. Plus, she added, she knew being at Holy Cross would help her in many ways in the future.

"When I grow older, I still want to be Catholic, and (being here) will get me to college and a better school," said Jehka, whose family is from Thailand and Burma.

Marguerite Kesinge, 12, thinks she may want to become a businesswoman and said she is getting a good academic foundation, having started at Holy Cross in first grade, she told the Catholic Courier on Jan. 10.

"Teachers help us learn more things that we're supposed to learn," said Kesinge, whose family resettled in Rochester from Zambia. "And if you're having trouble with something, a teacher helps so you understand it better."

The girls are enrolled at Holy Cross because of the school's connection to Mary's Place, a refugee outreach center serving families in northwest Rochester, explained former director Kathy LaBue. Several years ago, as Catholic Family Center resettled refugee families from Burma and the Congo area to Rochester, the children often were at Mary's Place, LaBue said. They came for food and to play with other children, she noted, and tutors also were available to help them with homework.

When the tutors began telling her of the reading struggles some of the children were experiencing, LaBue turned to Catholic schools in the area.

"We want to support them in as many ways as possible as we can," she said of refugee children. "The kids want to do well. They want to be well educated. ... And they have a strong faith."

Two of the older children were sponsored to attend Bishop Kearney's middle school, she said, but the younger ones "needed a good start too." Holy Cross School stepped up to the plate, LaBue said, noting that offering families the opportunity to educate their children would in turn improve the families' futures overall.

Six years ago, Holy Cross School began assisting one refugee family at a time and currently helps 10 families, said Father Thomas Wheeland, pastor of Holy Cross Parish.

The parents pay what they can toward the $4,100 per student annual tuition, said Principal Mary Martell. The rest of the tuition is covered by donations from parishioners, community members and other parishes such as Sacred Heart Cathedral, she said. Bishop Salvatore R. Matano sponsors some of the students, Father Wheeland and Martell noted.

Although Mary's Place is no longer associated with Holy Cross School as the center now focuses on adult education, LaBue said one of its volunteers recently donated $10,000 toward the children's tuition. She said children who need extra English tutoring also may receive assistance from the Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services, a nonprofit group that is part of a local refugee network.

Knowing that they are receiving a good education thanks to donations from the parish community and individuals, Jehka and Marguerite said they hope to also give back when they get older. Marguerite already has started doing so by helping her older sister aid other refugees in learning English and performing a folkloric dance during a fundraiser for Mary's Place.

"They have been a great asset to the school," said Father Wheeland of the families. "They have a great desire for learning and take any opportunity they can get. That (attitude) helps other kids see what they need to do too. They are example to us, too, as much as we are to them."

The children from the refugee families are enrolled at every grade level, said Martell. And Bishop Kearney has agreed to accept them upon completion of sixth grade, LaBue noted.

"It's like the 'Field of Dreams' movie," Martell said. "If we build it, they will come."

The families' dreams keep getting bigger, LaBue said, as she is helping two students apply for full scholarships to St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College.

"To educate them, it's not just during the school day, and it's not just the job of teachers and administrators," LaBue said. "Everyone is looking out for these kids and families."

Helping these families is fulfilling the mission of Holy Cross School: To make a Catholic education available to any child who wants it, Martell remarked.

"We do the best we can, and they thrive," she said.