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May 10, 2009

Volunteers paint, clean at two inner-city schools About 200 people turn out to help on Big Shoulders service day

By Pam DeFiglio


After three hours of painting hallways and doors at St. Elizabeth’s School, Erik Olson had splotches of electric blue paint on his arms and shirt.

Olson, from Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park, didn’t mind. He was caught up in the buzz of activity on April 25 as about 200 volunteers participated in a Saturday service day doing spring cleaning, painting and sprucing up at St. Elizabeth and Holy Angels schools on Chicago’s South Side.

The volunteers answered the call of the Big Shoulders Fund, a non-profit organization that helps 93 archdiocesan schools in areas where financial need hits hard. Cardinal Bernardin and Chicago business leaders organized the fund in 1986 at a time when many parishes were closing. Its donors, volunteers and staff have enabled many schools like St. Elizabeth’s, 4052 S. Wabash Ave., and Holy Angels, 750 E. 40th St., to keep their doors open.

‘This is phenomenal’

“This is phenomenal for us. Ninety-two percent of our families are below poverty level,” said St. Elizabeth’s principal Danielle Harris as volunteers filled the hallways with paint cans and drop cloths. “To have Big Shoulders partner with us, to do work we could not otherwise pay for, is amazing.”

Many parents at the school can’t afford the tuition, which starts at $2,400 for one child. Big Shoulders helps with tuition assistance, often providing more than half the funds, Harris said. Paying anything at all is difficult for some families, but considering the stakes — the Chicago Public Schools have approximately a 50 percent high school graduation rate, while it’s 97 percent at Big Shoulders schools — they have a motivation to make the sacrifice. Big Shoulders supports 76 elementary schools and 17 high schools.

Making ends meet

The situation is similar at Holy Angels, where 90 percent of students’ families fall at or below the poverty level, said principal Shirley Desadier. The tuition these schools collect doesn’t cover the cost of running them, so they seek grants, donations and help from Big Shoulders.

“When we’re trying to make ends meet, Big Shoulders comes through,” Desadier said.

Both schools and students’ families have needed the fund’s help more this year because of the re- cession.

“We gave out 30 percent more scholarships (tuition assistance) this year, to 5,000 scholars. It was such a brutal year,” said Amy Drozda of Big Shoulders Fund, while taking a break from organizing volunteers at St. Elizabeth’s. “That’s why days like today are exciting. The momentum will help us provide that support that’s needed now.”

She ticked off a list of groups volunteering in the effort: alumni from Marquette University, College of the Holy Cross, Notre Dame University, the University of Dayton and the University of Chicago; parishes such as Old St. Pat’s, St. Alphonsus and Holy Name Cathedral, and clubs such as the 21 Club of Chicago and the Illinois Club for Catholic Women Junior Board, among others.

Besides the painting, some volunteers were cleaning fallen branches and other debris from St. Elizabeth’s playground, and others were organizing books — everything from Seuss to Steinbeck — in the school’s library.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Marie Vetter, a volunteer from Old St. Pat’s.

At Holy Angels, volunteers stacked the library shelves with books donated by a foundation called Rock for Reading. They also did landscaping, including weeding, clearing away dried leaves and grass and planting petunias.

“I keep saying how blessed we are that all these volunteers came out to help us,” said Desadier. “I’m overwhelmed and thankful.”

The Big Shoulders Fund hopes to hold two to three more service days this year. For more information, visit