When a teacher or principal is working in an urban school where 90 percent of students are poor, meeting those kids’ needs sometimes becomes more than academic.
For two educators at Our Lady of the Angels, 4232 Mercier St. near Westport, it has meant being parents to siblings who otherwise might have been separated in the foster care system.
Sue Hoffman, whom other teachers and students at the Catholic school call “Sister Sue,” understands the weight of the needs many of her students carry.
“Our students don’t come with baggage, these days they come with luggage,” she said.
Mary Delac, who is the school principal and Hoffman’s closest friend, nodded in agreement.
The two of them for years have helped lighten the loads — the burdens of poverty or broken families — that their students bring with them every day into the classroom.
“Sometimes I drag her in to help out, and sometimes she drags me in,” Delac said about how she and Hoffman have so often spent a weekend hauling a refrigerator to a family where kids have gone hungry, or delivered mattresses to homes where students were sleeping on the floor or squeezed into a bed full of other siblings.
The two laugh as they recall summer afternoons spent scouring yard sales for clothing to stock school storerooms for the coming year, when they know students will show up without socks, coats or clean clothing.
The women admit they are not alone. Delac is quick to praise all the teachers and cafeteria and office workers who she said do double duty — the job they signed up for and the job of social workers — to make sure students are able to focus on schoolwork when they’re in class. The Catholic school tuition for many of these students is paid by community donations and the Bright Futures Fund, a charity.
“Until we win their hearts, we are not going to win their minds,” Delac said. “These are kids who need help with survival, the basic things the rest of us take for granted.”
Nearly a decade ago, the two friends, who live across the street from each other in Kansas City, Kan., went above and beyond even those who go above and beyond in central city schools every day.
They adopted three siblings — then ages 10, 12 and 13 — who had nowhere else to go, and no parent around to help them.
Their biological mother had taken a voluntary deportation back to Mexico, expecting to return legally in six months. A friend of the mother who had three children of her own and was just making ends meet agreed to look after the children temporarily.
But six months became eight months and then a year. When the friend could no longer afford the care, Delac and Hoffman made room for the siblings in their own homes.
Delac, who is divorced, eventually adopted the middle child, and Hoffman, who is married and has two biological children, adopted the two others.
The siblings grew up together in both homes. Now the oldest, a boy, is in the Navy. The middle child, a daughter, is a student at Regis University in Denver, and the youngest, another girl, is a high school sophomore.
In addition to teaching, Hoffman and Delac took on second jobs — taking tickets at sporting events and ushering at theater and music events — so they could afford tuition and extras for the children they added to their families.