Guardian Angel Society kicks off a milestone year of providing tuition assistance to Catholic schoolchildren
In March 2005, this editor chose to put the Rev. Joseph Champlin on the cover of the Syracuse New Times. Interviewing and writing about him proved an inspiration to me—a decided non-Catholic—and I am proud to say he became my friend. But I am not the only person Champlin touched with his sensitivity, good humor and quest to do God’s will on earth: his 52-year calling as a Catholic priest. His creation, the Guardian Angel Society, has inspired both the group’s donors and its recipients.
Celebrating 15 years, the society strives to help schoolchildren from below poverty-level homes attend Cathedral Academy at Pompei, as well as the county’s three Catholic high schools: Bishop Grimes, Bishop Ludden and Christian Brothers Academy. “We support about 60 percent of the students at Cathedral Academy at Pompei, and we’re starting to see more families coming up in need,” says Kathy Fedrizzi, executive director of the society, of the elementary school at 915 N. McBride St. Shifting demographics forced the merger of Cathedral School with Our Lady of Pompei in 2006. “We also have about 36 kids at the high schools. When Father started the Guardian Angel Society, his goal was to remove the cycle of poverty and see them through to graduation.”
An excellent example of that quest is Melanie George, who now lives in Buffalo after attending Cathedral School, CBA and Georgetown University. After moving to East Fayette Street from New York City with her mother, Amy George, Melanie, a high achiever, struggled to fit in at Franklin Elementary School, 428 S. Alvord St. After transferring to Catholic school, and with tuition assistance from the society, she flourished.
“It was amazing,” she says. “Just to be in a school that had small classroom sizes; the teachers were great. I still run into them and they remember me vividly.”
When George was in fifth grade, Champlin spoke to her class about taking the entrance exams to the three Catholic secondary schools. “He also spoke about how there would be money to help with tuition.” So she took the exams, qualified for all three schools, chose CBA, graduated and entered Georgetown, where she studied finance. None of it would have been possible without assistance from the Guardian Angel Society.
“I’m so grateful for everything the Guardian Angel Society has done for me,” George says, “especially Father Champlin. He was amazing and the society continues to do amazing things in the community.”George, 25, who works as an assistant vice president in the risk management division of Citibank, admits that going to Catholic school changed her life in other ways as well. “I think about all of my friends, and people that lived in my neighborhood,” she says. “I’m the only one that made it out. Most of the girls got pregnant and a lot of the guys ended up on the streets. I had strong support from Father Champlin as well as the teachers and staff at CBA. Aside from the quality of education, it was the quality of the people that were in my life.”
David Hatch and his wife Patricia lived in the city when their three children were young enough to attend St. Lucy’s, 422 Gifford St. When that West Side school closed in 2002, they were encouraged to consider Our Lady of Pompei, where David, 15, and 13-year-old twins Cameron and Cheyenna attended through sixth grade. Finances had the Hatches considering North Syracuse Central School District schools after having moved to Cicero, but the Guardian Angel Society helped sway their decision. Now the Hatch children attend Bishop Grimes.
“The Guardian Angel Society made it possible for us to stay at Catholic schools, especially at Bishop Grimes,” David Hatch notes. “As you get into the junior high, the cost increases and it’s even more at the high school level. If we didn’t have the society, we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Similarly for both George and the Hatch children, they are not affiliated with a Catholic parish. That increases tuition costs (unaffiliated students are charged more), but the important point is that the Guardian Angel Society doesn’t care where you attend church, or even if you do. “Father Champlin never cared one way or the other what my family believed in,” George says.
In addition to providing financial assistance, the society recruits mentors to help the students academically, but also give them valuable life experiences their parents may not be able to afford. For years Kathleen Quinn mentored two sisters who attended Cathedral School, Chrystal and Renee McKay. Both girls went on to graduate from Bishop Ludden, Chrystal in 2006 and Renee in 2008. Chrystal is currently attending Long Island University, studying psychology, while Renee is at SUNY Potsdam. They lived at the downtown high-rise Presidential Plaza with their mother, who is from Jamaica.
“When I first started taking them out on the weekends, we would go to the country,” Quinn says, “and as they got older, I would take them to the theater, events like that. For me it was getting these kids different experiences. The Guardian Angel Society didn’t expect us mentors to take these kids places, but if you did, that was OK, too.”
While the society also provided financial assistance to both McKay girls, the mentoring by Quinn proved equally valuable. “I think we tend to forget how the simplest tasks can seem insurmountable to an inner-city child,” says Quinn, who taught microbiology at Onondaga Community College and SUNY Upstate. “Ever try to enter a science fair without the proper supplies? With no car and little money? It was in those types of endeavors that I was able to provide the most help to Chrystal, I think, and we both had fun doing it.
“To me, it’s been a blessing to follow her journey from grammar school to graduate school. I believe that Father Champlin’s dream for these children has been met in Chrystal and countless other students who have reached their goals and followed their dreams.”
All of this financial assistance requires fundraising, and even though Champlin died in 2008, his worldly ways pervade all the society’s appeals. While this is the group’s 15th anniversary year, it’s the 11th year for the Swinging Sweet Cabaret, Feb. 11, at Temple Adath Yeshurun, 450 Kimber Road. The Mario DeSantis Orchestra has entertained attendees each of those 11 years. Maria DeSantis explains why.
“At the time that Father started the Guardian Angel Society, the DeSantis quartet of our band was a staple at the 5:10 Sunday mass at Cathedral. It was a very interesting thing we were doing in order to bring secular and spiritual music together. It was his idea to have a gala and have the orchestra be part of it.”
The DeSantis Orchestra is the only band for the event’s five hours. “We cater in some respects to the swing dance community,” Maria continues, “but it’s straight-ahead dance music for the rest of the night. It’s warm and fun and an inviting environment, compared to other galas; it had the stamp of Father’s personality on it.”
Furthermore, Champlin made sure the orchestra was paid for its time. “He would raise the money so that the band was paid for,” DeSantis says. “That’s the piece of it that they guys can’t get over. Father was recognizing what the event needed to do things right—lighting and sound and production—and he went out and made it possible without hurting the scholarship fundraising.”
In addition to the music, Swinging Sweet Cabaret features dining and desserts as well as raffles. Tickets cost $75, and can be purchased by calling the society at 422-7218 or visiting guardianangelsociety.org. Other fundraisers throughout the year include running in or sponsoring a runner in the Memorial Day 5K run in Camillus, a race that Champlin participated in for years.
August sees the annual golf tournament at the Links at Sunset Ridge in Marcellus and in October, the society’s newest fundraiser is a Monte Carlo night. “There’s not an exchange of cash,” Fedrizzi explains, “but an exchange of chips for raffle tickets for prizes. It’s a younger crowd there that we’ve been able to reach out to, a whole different crowd than Swinging Sweet Cabaret.” In December, the DeSantis Orchestra lends its talents to, and shares some of the proceeds from, Christmas at the Palace.
If you aren’t able to donate money to the Guardian Angel Society’s cause, you can always donate your time. The mentoring program just received a grant for $7,500 from First Niagara Bank to help expand into Bishop Grimes, Bishop Ludden and CBA.
“The higher grades can be tough to adjust to,” Fedrizzi says, “and we provide mentors as well as financial support. Anyone can call this office if they’re interested in mentoring.”
And with an increasing refugee population entering the Catholic high schools, English-language tutoring is especially vital. “We are looking at starting a summer program with this grant also, to help the older kids with their English and math skills.”
No one can deny that the key to success in life is a decent education. While parochial schools aren’t for everyone, they do serve a need and have decades of demonstrated success. For many families, however, Catholic schools are cost-prohibitive. That’s why Champlin formed the Guardian Angel Society and why his legacy lives on.
“There are so many people in Syracuse who want to see the society
continue its good work,” says Fedrizzi, “and that’s why it’s still here
after 15 years. We want to carry on Father’s legacy and people can see
their dollars at work. Knowing Father the way I did, and what a
sensitive person he was, he would be breaking down to see the success of