By Joanna Gardner
Yomary Blanco approached Father Joseph Pham, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Atlantic City, in July. She needed to transfer her daughters, entering first and third grade at the parish school, to a different school. Blanco and her husband Felix had heard that the casinos where they worked were going to be closed.
They knew that without both incomes they could no longer afford Catholic education.
“They didn’t want to go,” Blanco said of her daughters. “They said, ‘Mommy no! I’m going to miss my teachers, my friends!’”
In August, Blanco was contacted by Father Pham who told her that transferring might not be necessary, thanks to a tuition assistance fund the school had raised in response to the casino closings in Atlantic City.
“I had said to the office, ‘anyone who asks to be transferred, send them to me. I don’t want anyone transferring out of the school without my knowledge.’ The first priority right now for me is to help the parents keep their children in our school,” Father Pham said.
“With the help of God, we got the funding at the right time,” he said. “I thank God for that.”
Since January of this year, four of what used to be 12 Atlantic City casinos have closed their doors. A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal, is set to close in November. All told, the city will have lost 11,000 jobs.
The closings could have spelled the end of Catholic education for several children attending Our Lady Star of the Sea School, the last surviving Catholic school in Atlantic City. But thanks to the funds raised by various benefactors of the school, Father Pham has been able to offer tuition assistance to every family who requested to transfer in the wake of the crisis.
Nine students who had intended to transfer have been able to stay in the school. Only three students, whose families have moved out of the region due to the closings, have left. The fundraising was so successful that the school has seen its enrollment increase by seven new students this year thanks to tuition assistance.
“Every Mass I would see families with children and say, ‘Why aren’t your children in school here?’ They would say financial reasons, and I would say, come and talk to me,” Father Pham said.
There were at one time several Catholic elementary schools in Atlantic City. Three years ago, Our Lady Star of the Sea became the only one left. It has seen great changes over the years, but its mission has remained the same.
“When I came to Our Lady Star of the Sea, it was mostly Irish Catholic children and when I retired it was a school of much diversity,” said Sister Shamus Zehrer, R.S.M., principal of OLSS for 38 years until her retirement last month.
“We have 50 countries represented in our school and at least 32 different dialects, and most of the children are first generation immigrants,” she added.
Sister Shamus has worked in Atlantic City education for 50 years. She began teaching in the now-closed Holy Spirit School, then taught at Our Lady Star of the Sea for eight years before becoming principal.
“We didn’t have any training for this gradual shifting, we just worked with it as it came along. It blossomed beautifully by just using common sense and kindness. The children don’t see a difference. We’re like a family, the parents, the teachers, the students and the pastors. It’s a wonderful example of how people can get along with one another,” Sister Shamus said.
“And the children get an excellent education because the teachers are wonderful, dedicated, hard-working,” she said.
Former state Sen. William Gormley held a fundraiser and retirement party for Sister Shamus in early August, honoring her years of service. The funds raised formed a large part of the OLSS tuition assistance fund.
“They were so excited when I told them ‘you’re going to your school,’” Yomary Blanco said of her two daughters. “They learn at home about God, about what’s good and bad. But that’s only in the time that you can give them. At school it’s different because it’s daily. They learn it every single day at school.”
Blanco’s husband has found new employment, but at a fraction of his former wage. Blanco says she is considering returning to school, and is focusing on passions like cooking.
“There’s an expression in Spanish: Dios aprieta pero no ahorca. Things get tightened, but God won’t ever tighten you so much that you can’t get out. There’s always a way out,” Blanco said. “We’re struggling, but we take it day by day.”