By Kathy Fazio
My name is Kathy Fazio. I have been a member of St. Paul’s since the early 90’s. Our family found our way to church thanks to the gentle introduction to spirituality through our association with St. Paul’s Day School. Attending the weekly chapel service with our small children brought me into the peace, serenity and devotion of spending time a place where I could center myself and find a true sanctuary from the daily “noise”.
As my life progressed and our children started to leave the nest, I realized that I had a genuine desire to do more within our community. Paul’s Place After School, a Mission and Outreach Program of the church was launched in 2000 by our Rector and Vestry. Paul’s Place provided me an immediate opening to spend some impactful time with children in need. I started as a volunteer one day a week and graduated to a “full-time” volunteer, head of the Task Force and eventually to become the Director in 2007. Coming from a sheltered and privileged background, I have benefitted greatly from being immersed into the daily lives of our children and families who are filled with hope yet struggle to succeed.
Paul’s Place is changing lives one person at a time. We can point to many success stories with high school and college graduates, but I would like to share one incredible story of a student who I consider to be the face (and smile!) of our program. Without our Mission and Outreach program, this child would not ever have received the support and services she required and requires to succeed.
Dieula Alexis (Titi) has been with Paul’s Place since 2006 when she started as a third grade student at Pine Grove Elementary, and she continues to come to the after school each afternoon. Titi is unlike any other student that we have had the pleasure to serve. When she first joined our program, she was only 8 years old. Titi was a quite shy and soft-spoken girl, with a sweet and warm personality, and a smile that could light up any room. She was one of 4 children being raised by her single mother. Like all our students, Titi and her family faced the daily struggle of poverty.
Beyond poverty, Titi has had several unique obstacles to overcome that posed a substantial hurdles to her academic success. When Titi was a young girl, she experienced a major life crisis that left her mute. Shockingly, this young girl had not uttered a word for about 2 years of her childhood. In the months before she joined our program, she had just began to speak. At Paul’s Place, we made it our effort to always make sure Titi felt safe and loved. As she became increasingly more verbal, it was apparent that Titi had a pronounced speech disability. Speaking was especially effortful for her and she often could not be understood. Her speech was unclear, muffled and sometimes jumbled, and her siblings often had to often serve as her translator.
In her first weeks in the program, one of the first things that we learned about Titi was that she thrived from individual attention. She absolutely loved the one-on-one encounters. Realizing this, each day, we made it a mission, not only to provide her with opportunities for individual homework help, but also to set aside a few moments to allow her to share with us the details of her day. She was a very optimistic young girl and described most days as being, “Fantastic!” Unfortunately, there were some days that were pretty melancholic, when the reality of her disabilities left her feeling dejected and ostracized. She admitted to being teased by her peers while at school or on the bus. We were determined to make Paul’s Place a safe haven for Titi. We were always deliberate in pointing out her strengths and the little improvements that she was making overtime. We also arranged several meetings with her teachers and guidance counselors to see how we could better support Titi and align with the schools to meet her specific academic needs.
During her high school years, we began to think about Titi’s prospects after graduation. Historically, we encourage our high school graduates to go on to college. However, the case with Titi was quite different. With such pronounced learning and speaking disability, we did not know whether college was the right path for Titi. Each year we had to be proactive in keeping her on track for promotion, constantly requesting that teacher modify classwork assignments in light of her documented disability, and ‘holding her hand’ during her homework assignments. College would certainly not accommodate Titi in the ways that we had. Accordingly, at Paul’s Place, we made several appointments to meet with her guidance counselors, teachers and Exceptional Student Education Specialists to share our concern.
At Paul’s Place, we set appointments for Titi, and transported her to these appointments. Thankfully, as a result of these assessments, Titi was invited to participate in the ACCESS program. Essentially, this program provides vocational rehabilitation services to Titi for the next four years, teaching her the major life skills for independence, including using public transportation, applying for jobs, and budgeting paychecks. This program has afforded her the foundational means by which to get a job, keep a job and be self-sufficient. Titi who is 20 years old, is currently employed by Atlantic Community High School in their food service department for 30 hours a week, she works part time at TJMaxx and most importantly she returns to Paul’s Place each afternoon to be our “Kitchen Manager” and mentor to our current students. Just ask any kitchen volunteer what a blessing Titi is to our daily lives!
Paul’s Place – we are small but we are bold! Our mantra is “Neighbors helping Neighbors”. The Clergy, Vestry and Parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church whole-heartedly support the work of our after school program. We are succeeding. Never in my life have I been more clear on a mission and what we can accomplish one student or family at a time. These children and their hardworking, hopeful families are entirely thankful to Paul’s Place. My background did not prepare me as a teacher, social worker, or fundraiser, but this is my passion. Should you be thinking about trying something new or refilling an “empty nest”, please stop by and meet our dear “Titi” and the rest of our students. I promise it will be the highlight of your day.