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Big Shoulders event showcases diocesan schools as beacons of hope

 111822Lend a shoulder day St JohnBaptist

Linda Curley, a health and human sciences educator for Purdue University Extension, works with students in Mrs. Spanier's kindergarten class to complete a pattern project at St. John the Baptist School in Whiting on Nov. 9. The opportunity to visit the school was made possible through Lend a Shoulder Day organized by Big Shoulders Fund. (Erin Ciszczon photo)

 

BY ERIN CISZCZON / Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      Big Shoulders Fund celebrated the anniversary of its Northwest Indiana Initiative by hosting the 2nd annual Lend a Shoulder Day which honored scholars, teachers and school leaders. 

      Lend a Shoulder Day, which took place on Nov. 9, is an opportunity for members of the community to join other business leaders and the team at Big Shoulders Fund at a diocesan school to see how the organization's mission is making a difference in the education community. Over 100 participants took advantage of the opportunity to visit with school leadership, tour the school and classrooms, and meet some of the students and faculty. The group was spread out through four schools in the Diocese of Gary: St. Casimir (Hammond), St. John Bosco (Hammond), St. John the Baptist (Whiting) and Bishop Noll Institute (Hammond).

      Inspired by the late-Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Big Shoulders Fund was founded by a group of business and civic leaders in 1986 to provide support to Catholic schools with demonstrated need in Chicago. It does this through scholarship support and academic enrichment for students, operational improvements for schools, leadership development programs for the next generation of school leaders, and academic programs and professional development for teachers.

      Tom Schager, who serves on an advisory board for Big Shoulders, welcomed guests at St. John the Baptist School in Whiting. He explained that with the success Big Shoulders had in the Chicagoland area, it expanded to Northwest Indiana thanks to a financial gift from the Bruce and Beth White Family Foundation last year "with the goal really of helping to provide more opportunities for families of students to get the kind of education they want for their children."

      "Making the focus awareness around what those opportunities can be is really the primary goal of Big Shoulders right now," Schager said.

      Other goals, he said, include letting the schools know Big Shoulders is available to support them and making sure that people who are connected to the community and schools are aware of Big Shoulders.

      "The more people know about what Big Shoulders is looking to do, the more it will benefit the children of Northwest Indiana," he said.

      Principal Jessica Gonzalez shared that as a Catholic grade school, St. John the Baptist tries to enrich students with faith and challenge them with the 21st century skills needed to be successful in the future. The foreign language curriculum provides students with three years of learning Spanish. The school also rolled out a one-to-one device program to utilize technology where all 6th-, 7th- and 8th- grade students use iPads and those in kindergarten through 5th grade have access to Chromebooks.

      “I’m very excited to see what they will continue to offer us at our school and what our kids will get from partnering with everyone at Big Shoulders.” Gonzalez said.

      Dr. Mary Jane Eisenhauer, participated in Lend a Shoulder Day on behalf of the Porter County Community Foundation and First Things First Porter County. At St. John the Baptist, she was part of a group that worked with a kindergarten class to establish color patterns and assisted in a fifth grade math lesson that involved decimals. As part of the PCCF, Eisenhauer was interested in “seeing what’s happening in the schools.”

      “(I was) just thinking about what’s happening in the classrooms right now and how children are finding their way back to learning and how teachers are coping with all that’s going on,” she said.

      Eve Gomez, a community servant involved in media, was encouraged to attend after recently learning about Big Shoulders from a colleague. She toured and sat in on classes at St. John Bosco in Hammond.

      “Anything to help improve the quality of life in education, especially with so much going on in the community and our kids (being) exposed to so much more," said Gomez. "I think by them seeing a good outcome by others – seeing leaders coming in – they can actually have hope and build dreams from it."

      Julie Remschneider, assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Gary, said what resonated with her the most during the day was what she heard from students. One of the students said she transferred from a public school two years ago. The student was admittedly shy upon coming to the new school, but as she started to meet people, she gained more confidence and was recently voted president of the student council.

      “I just thought how amazing that she’s having this experience in this small, family-like community and she feels empowered and safe,” said Remschneider.

      As the day shifted to The Lighthouse restaurant in Cedar Lake in the afternoon, participants in the Lend a Shoulder Day enjoyed lunch and heard from Precious Knight, 16, part of the Bishop Noll Institute class of 2023.

      Knight started her speech by saying that the high school provides a sense of community and explained that as the COVID-19 pandemic began "the staff and administration made sure to create a plan that worked for the good of the students, the staff and community here at Bishop Noll.”

      “During that time period we all worked together to become stronger, and I would like to say that I think I came out a better person after that,” said Knight.

      Knight would go on to share how she met Dr. Marlon Mitchell, president of the Gary East Side Community Development Corporation, during a previous Big Shoulders event. A brief conversation about her dreams to become a medical surgeon and study neurology eventually led to an invitation to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics programs. She excelled and even earned a gold medal at the state level competition.

      “With the help of Big Shoulders and Dr. Mitchell being there that day, I was able to expand my horizons and broaden my field so I could find other things I like to do besides track,” said the high school regional track qualifier.

      Dan Kozlowski, managing director of Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana took to the microphone to thank his staff for their hard work and highlighted a few accomplishments of Big Shoulders. Big Shoulders has provided professional leadership training for staff and administrators at diocesan schools, worked with Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting to create a Northwest Indiana Teachers Scholarship and helped financially to make it possible for Aquinas Catholic Community School in Merrillville to break ground on a needed $3 million expansion project.

      “The day was fantastic!” Kozlowski said. “We were so happy to have everyone come out to experience the impact that our schools have on the students they serve. Many of the attendees approached me after the event excited about getting involved in our mission and the experience they had during the school visits are a direct result.”

      For more information about the Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana and to view ways to get involved, visit bigshouldersfund.org.

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