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Gifts from alumni at South Side Catholic high school become ‘a lifeline’

For the last three weeks, Leo Catholic High School has been handing out boxed lunches, cash and gift cards to needy parents.

Staff and faculty at Leo High School help distribute meals to students and community members outside Leo High School, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Staff and faculty at Leo High School help distribute meals to students and community members outside the South Side school, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A couple of weeks ago, Nikia Bell, a single mother of four, waited in a line that stretched for four blocks — holding onto a resume and the fragile hope of work.

Three hours later, nearing the front of the line, Bell was told that she’d have to come back another day to the job-finding service. And now, the 42-year-old’s car is on the fritz. Her increasingly dire situation brought Bell to tears Friday.

“I kind of got overwhelmed because I was just thinking about what am I going to do when it’s all over,” said Bell, referring to the coronavirus shutdown.

But Bell, who lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood, was thankful for at least one thing Friday — the folks at Leo Catholic High School on the South Side, where her son Kendale Anderson is a senior. For the last three weeks, the school has been handing out boxed meals and gift cards [for groceries and other necessities] to parents in need, which is most of them. The school has also been offering tuition deferments, meaning parents won’t have to pay while they’re out of work.

“They are Uber drivers, they are hair stylists, restaurant servers, bar tenders, they do daycare out of their homes; those poor people have been devastated,” said Dan McGrath, the school’s president.

Most of the money — about 65% — to pay for gifts has come from alumni, many of whom graduated decades ago when the school catered to a very different demographic.

“These crusty old white guys are keeping the school going,” McGrath said.

Darryl Tabernacki, father and spouse to faculty at Leo High School, gives food to a students parent outside Leo High School, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Darryl Tabernacki, father and spouse to a faculty member, at Leo High School, gives food to a students parent outside Leo High School, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ray Siegel, a 1965 graduate, got the ball rolling and then urged some of his classmates to donate too. Together, they raised about $40,000. But Siegel didn’t want to talk about the money Friday.

“I was lucky enough to have people help me get an education,” said Siegel, who lives in Northfield and is retired from a career in finance. “I just want to help other people get an education.”

The remainder of the donations are coming from the Big Shoulders Fund, founded in 1986 by a group of business and civic leaders to support Catholic school kids in some of the neediest parts of the city.

Leo has so far donated about 700 meals, McGrath said, and about a total of $44,000 in cash and gift cards.

“Leo High School has been great,” Bell said. “From the time I stepped in the front door, there’s been nothing but family love and support.”

For her, Leo has been “a big lifeline.”

“It’s a big lifeline — most of my lifeline,” Bell said.

Tracy Crenshaw, left, hands a few boxes of food to Ernest Bryant, to be distributed to students and community members outside Leo High School, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Tracy Crenshaw, left, hands a few boxes of food to Ernest Bryant, to be distributed to students and community members outside Leo High School, Friday, April 24, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times