By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published October 14, 2010
When Maryann Lester started kindergarten this fall, someone she may never know opened the door for her.
The little girl, who loves her school uniform and her teacher, goes to Holy Redeemer School in Johns Creek. She is a GRACE Scholar, a program supported by people throughout Georgia who redirected a portion of their state taxes to it.
“Oh, my goodness. It is a dream come true,” her mother, Beatrice, said, about her oldest child starting Catholic school.
“She loves it. She tells me how they pray. It is amazing. I want her to grow up knowing God, with faith being the center of all she does. It is really a dream come true. I couldn’t think of anything better.”
The Catholic school tuition would have been completely out of reach for Beatrice, who has slowly worked her way out of financial difficulties after a divorce, with the guidance and support of her church and several nonprofits, one where she works and another where the family of three lives.
A native of Kenya and graduate of Oglethorpe University, her determined efforts as a parent and breadwinner have been recognized by those around her. Habitat for Humanity has chosen the family for a homebuilding project. The family will help construct the home and will complete home ownership through Habitat’s mortgage program.
Beatrice, a member of St. Andrew Church in Roswell, longed for her daughter to go to Catholic school.
“As a single mother … I felt like if she was in a Catholic school she would get that extra reinforcement that would mold her into a proper person. What better place to do it than in a Catholic school,” she said.
She read about GRACE Scholars in the parish bulletin. The pastor, Msgr. Hugh Marren, has actively promoted parishioners giving to GRACE Scholars so more children could receive the needed tuition aid to go to Catholic schools.
Since 2008, any Georgia taxpayer can direct a portion of their state taxes to a recognized student scholarship organization (SSO) and receive a tax credit for that amount. The annual limit is $1,000 for individuals and $2,500 for married couples who file jointly. Corporations can also direct contributions to an SSO. An aggregate total of $50 million each year given to SSOs statewide is eligible for tax credits.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta and Diocese of Savannah created GRACE Scholars, Inc., as an SSO serving the diocesan Catholic schools in Georgia.
Encouraged by her pastor, Lester applied to Holy Redeemer for Maryann. Because she is starting kindergarten, Maryann was eligible for GRACE Scholars, which must be directed toward new students entering non-public schools for the first time. She was accepted at Holy Redeemer and for a GRACE scholarship. The scholarship can be renewed each year as long as a student keeps up grades and the financial need remains.
“It covers about two-thirds of my tuition and I have a tuition-assistance grant from the school that covers the rest,” Beatrice said.
“One thing I have seen with St. Andrew’s and the Holy Redeemer community is they are very supportive and helpful. When I was going through the divorce and trying to make ends meet … they pulled me out and they held my hand all the way,” she said.
“That is amazing when people think of you and your children in such a way. That is very amazing. I feel like I belong. I am part of their family now and they do whatever it takes.”
The Georgia student scholarship organization initiative is one way the archdiocese is trying to open more doors to Catholic schools for families.
Diane Starkovich, Atlanta superintendent of Catholic schools, said, “The bishops have stated that a Catholic education provides the best method of passing on our faith to the next generation of Catholics. Assisting families with demonstrated financial need not only provides an academic education second to none, it also provides them with a Catholic education that supports parents in their primary role as the first teacher of their children. Our excellent faith formation provides a solid foundation for future leaders in our Church, and God willing, further plants the seed for future vocations as well.”
GRACE scholarships are targeted to families with financial need, she said, and that can include a wide range of circumstances.
“Single parent families and lower income earners demonstrate financial need in our application process. Many of these families simply don’t apply to our schools because they believe the cost of tuition is out of range. Our principals always remind families to apply, complete a financial aid application, and give us an opportunity to see how we can make a Catholic education possible. While we can’t always accomplish this, GRACE opens many, many doors to families who previously wouldn’t even consider applying to our schools,” she said.
“At the same time, middle-income families are experiencing tremendous challenges to meet our tuition costs. While they may make ‘too much’ to qualify for financial assistance, many times they simply don’t make ‘enough’ to afford the extra payment each month to send their children to our schools. We must find a way to provide them with needed assistance, and GRACE may very well be the best solution possible.”
Beatrice Lester said she is grateful for the scholarship and how it assists her as a mother of two.
“A Catholic education will give them all the tools they need to go to good colleges and establish good careers,” she said. “As a single mom I feel like I need about 10 more hours in the day. … I am everything to them. Whatever I am not able to do for them, they are getting at Holy Redeemer. I know between the school and myself they will get what they need to grow up.”
“I am really grateful for the GRACE scholarship,” she said. “I tell everybody about it. … I tell them this is the greatest program ever. … I pray people keep supporting this GRACE Scholar program.”
Information about GRACE Scholars, the forms to apply for the tax credit and guidelines on how to make a donation are available at www.gracescholars.org or call (404) 888-7848.