Opportunity to make Gospel teachings truly come alive

Sr. Deborah Hughes
We are, each one of us, stones skipped across the waters of the universe. The  ripples of our presence…radiate forever.
Taken from Living Well by Joan Chittister
Reflecting back on the weeks and months after the largest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States, I am struck by the unique correlation of the words: “the ripples of our presence” with the experiences of the many people in our diocese who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina.  Several thousand individuals – those who fled their homes from this life-changing storm, as well as, those who welcomed children and parents into new Catholic school communities – were indeed touched by faces and events that will “radiate forever”… because of memories deeply etched during the aftermath of Aug. 29, 2005.
During the initial period after that fateful Monday, more than 680 students from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the New Orleans area enrolled in our Catholic schools.  Each of the 22 Catholic school communities in the diocese was impacted by increased student enrollment in those weeks after Hurricane Katrina had made landfall. Helping students and their families return to the normalcy that only the structure of a school-day schedule can provide became our major priority.
This storm, which so greatly changed the lives of vast numbers of families on the Coast and in the New Orleans area,  also generated a massive wave of compassion and heartfelt response throughout our diocese and, particularly, in the communities of its Catholic schools.
The  largest percentage of these new  enrollees registered in the three elementary schools and one middle/high school in the metro-Jackson area.  Elementary and secondary schools in Vicksburg, Natchez, and McComb also accepted large numbers into their student bodies, while smaller numbers of students enrolled in Catholic schools in Greenville, Greenwood, Clarksdale, Canton, Meridian, Columbus, Holly Springs and Southaven.
For each Catholic school community – administrator, faculty members, students and parents  – this challenge of new student enrollment evolved into an amazing opportunity to make Gospel teachings, daily presented in religion classes, truly come alive in everyday life.  This all transpired in and through the extensive and creative outreach efforts of each school community, adults and children, and the welcoming  of our “guests” from the Gulf Coast and Louisiana.
About 75 percent of the new enrollees had previously attended Catholic schools in the Diocese of Biloxi or in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Many of these families had already prepaid their tuition for the year and were grateful to find a Catholic school  in the same area where they had just set up temporary housing. Other families, not familiar with Catholic education, were simply eager to have their children in a convenient educational setting and back on a consistent daily schedule.
Logistically, school resources needed to be assessed and monitored daily those first few weeks and at times, resources needed to be relocated.  We were, however, blessed with many willing and  generous volunteers!   Student desks surfaced as an immediate need where enrollment had increased significantly.  During those first two weekends after Hurricane Katrina,  numerous work groups were assembled at designated sites.  “Extra” desks were packed onto donated trucks and trailers and were transported to specific schools where they were needed; principals there had teams of volunteers ready to take care of the unpacking.
Principals and teachers spent many weekend hours making the necessary preparations and accommodations to welcome and assimilate new families into school communities. Items from school supplies (i.e. notebooks, looseleaf paper, pens, pencils, markers, etc.) to uniforms, to clothing for entire families, as well as, weekly dinners organized and served by parent organizations were provided and made available through many generous donations of the school and parish families associated with Catholic schools in the diocese. As they were needed, personnel from Catholic Charities and a number of other volunteer counselors offered services to both students and their families.
During this time, principals and faculties did a monumental job, especially on the high school level, of testing and placing new students in appropriate classes for their particular grade level. The practical aspects of bringing young people into new schools without any educational records, report cards, etc., was a huge undertaking.  Adding further challenge to this situation was the fact that most parents were very honest with school principals in expressing that they did not know nor could they estimate, how long their sons and daughters would be remaining  in their “adopted” schools.
As a diocesan system, we had decided early on that any “Katrina family” seeking enrollment in a Catholic school at this time would not be asked to pay any of the usual enrollment fees or tuition unless that family specifically indicated a desire to take on this responsibility.  The reality of increased costs for classroom space (I.e. portable units), teacher assistants and textbooks was closely monitored by the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools.
Each week in the ensuing months of the 2005-2006 academic year, principals were encouraged to send any invoices to the office if they were unable to handle the extra expenses incurred because of enrollment increases. Very few invoices were ever received…
As we endeavored to reach  out to meet the various needs of our Katrina families, I believe that we, in fact, experienced a modern day version of the Gospel of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fish!  Because of monetary donations received at the local school level, as well as, contributions from religious communities, Catholic churches and benefactors from all over the United States, our schools in the Jackson diocese were able to meet the educational expenses resulting from our increased student enrollment after Hurricane Katrina.
By Thanksgiving, the number of Katrina students had decreased by about 50 percent and during the course of the second semester, many other students returned to their former neighborhoods and schools. A donation from the National Catholic Education’s “Child to Child” Campaign and numerous other monetary gifts from across the U.S. served as a resource for the remaining Katrina students who were enrolled in our Catholic schools.
These families were able to apply for significant tuition grants from this special Katrina fund for both the second semester of the 2005-6 academic year and  also for the following school year.   Approximately 125 students re-enrolled in their “adopted” schools for the 2006-7 school year; many took advantage of the generosity of the individuals who made possible this invaluable resource.
Ten years later … these are but a few of the many “ripples of presence” which continue to be a poignant reminder to me of the far-reaching impact of Hurricane Katrina on Catholic education in the Jackson diocese.
(Sister Deborah Hughes was the Superintendent of Catholic Schools when Katrina hit. She now works with Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Holly Springs.)