Contemporary American life is filled with stuff to do, which makes it very difficult for many folks to carve out precious time in order to voluntarily help a worthy cause. Sometimes, it takes a little “incentive.”
In Robert Pape’s case, it was a pizza.
Specifically, a garlic pizza … from the first incarnation of Wonder Bar on Shrewsbury Street.
“I’m originally from Albany (New York) and I’m of Italian descent, so I’ve had my share of pizza,” said Pape. “But that garlic pizza was something else.”
Pape didn’t say whether he enjoyed the spicy pie, but the three men who shared the meal with him on that day in 1989 on the city’s East Side convinced him to volunteer in a new program that would allow children from financially strapped families to attend schools run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester.
The students were to be given almost full scholarships or extremely discounted tuition rates.
That year, the fledgling endeavor allowed seven or eight kids to take classes in Catholic schools. Since its founding, the program has slowly grown.
This year, 43 students took part in the “Adopt-A-Student” program, thanks to about $200,000 in contributions. Since the program started, about $3.6 million has been raised and hundreds have gone to diocesan schools. Overall, 1,200 scholarships have been awarded.
The program has been successful, officials said, because of a small army of volunteers and donors, like Pape.
The program was started by then-Bishop Timothy J. Harrington and was set up to run off a trust fund. Organizers said it was Bishop Harrington’s “vision” and “dream” to send needy kids to Catholic schools.
The bishop expounded on his ideas in a column in The Catholic Free Press and urged fellow Catholics to join him “in adopting a student or two.”
The chancery set up a steering committee and volunteers were asked to seek out donors and other helpers. Pape’s name came up and he was invited out to have a bite to eat with former diocesan School Superintendent Charles E. McManus; William J. O’Brien, the former president and chief executive officer of the Hanover Insurance Cos., and Owen C. Coogan, who, program officials said, worked for the diocese in development and fundraising capacities.
‘”I’ve been with the program since then,” said Pape, noting that a fundraising and recognition dinner will be held April 4.
The program has helped students like Grace Clark, an 18-year-old freshman at Assumption College.
“I really got a great education,” said Clark, who is a pre-medical student studying biology and neuroscience. “Frankly, if it weren’t for the program, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Clark comes from a big family — she’s the sixth of nine kids — and a brother, James, had already taken advantage of the program.
James attended Holy Name Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School and later joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He’s now studying to be a teacher at Rivier University in Nashua, N.H.
With help from the program, Clark was able to attend St. Peter Central Catholic Elementary and St. Peter-Marian Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School.
She figures that she’s received at least $50,000 in financial aid. In a link-up to the program, Clark has also been given a full, four-year scholarship to attend Assumption.
In 2008, the school, along with Anna Maria College, agreed to provide four-year scholarships to the top students in the program. The scholarships were first presented in 2010. Clark, who participated in a number of extracurricular activities, had the highest grade-point average in her senior class at high school.
Clark added that a sister, Catherine, is also getting some help from the program and is a freshman at St. Peter-Marian.
Clark said she would like someday to repay the charity she has received by helping the impoverished in Africa, possibly by working through the Doctors Without Borders organization or a missionary society.
Clark already has some experience in helping the poor in underserved nations. She helped organize and participated in trips to aid residents of Gonve, a village 30 miles south of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. The students helped build homes and worked to improve Haitians’ hygiene.
Through Adopt-A-Student, parents can receive up to 90 percent of the cost for tuition. They are expected to pay the rest. If they can’t, they must volunteer some time in the school in “sweat equity.”
“We feel the parents should have some skin in the game,” Pape said.
The program is only offered at diocesan schools and not the parochial schools run by individual parishes.
“Pastors would like us to expand the program to their church schools, but we can’t because of our limited funding and the number of volunteers that we have,” Pape said.
Parents learn about the program when they enroll their students. They must fill out a form with questions about the family’s finances. Letters of recommendation are also required and students have to reapply annually.
A liaison is also chosen for the enrolled student to ensure that the funding is not squandered on kids not serious about learning. Participants are also asked to spend some time volunteering at the school, in their parishes or in the community.
Re-applying students are also required to submit an essay explaining “How has being the recipient of this scholarship changed your life?”
Adopt-A-Student is not restricted to Catholics, and about 18 percent of participants are from other faiths.
Some donors, who contribute anywhere from $100 to $5,000 or more, declined to be interviewed.
“They preferred to stay off the radar,” Pape said.
Kids who take advantage of the program come from all backgrounds. Most are high-school age, probably because the tuition rates for the secondary schools are higher than those at the elementary or middle schools. Many come from broken or single-parent households.
Meanwhile, an awards program and fundraiser will be held April 4 at Mechanics Hall. Mary Lou Retelle, president of Anna Maria College, will be the guest speaker. Ticket and sponsorship information is available at www.adopt-a-student.net. In addition to that event, its 27th annual golf tournament fundraiser will be held at Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston later in the summer.