This family lost everything. A Catholic school rescued them. Now it’s gone, too.

Ron Matus

Samyra Santana, right, her husband, Gerson Reina, and their daughter, Samira, found a home at St. Joseph Catholic Church and St. Joseph Academy in Lakeland.

Editor’s note: Special thanks is extended to Fernanda Murgueytio, a member of Step Up For Students’ Advocacy and Civic Engagement team, for invaluable assistance in reporting this story. Fernanda helped with interviews and translated them from Spanish to English.

LAKELAND, Fla. – Two years after government thugs forced her family to flee their home, Samyra Santana googled “Catholic church near me.” She and her husband and daughter were 1,700 miles from the madness that upended everything, trying to start over in this city of lakes and live oaks.

The screen read, “St. Joseph Catholic Church.” As fate would have it, the first person Santana met when she drove over was a building manager who spoke Spanish. Before long, her family had a church, a school – and a warm, inclusive community to build a new life in.

Then, bam.

On May 21, the Diocese of Orlando announced that due to complications from COVID-19, St. Joseph Academy was closing. Santana said the news made her physically sick.

“It felt like I was losing my home again,” she said.

St. Joseph Academy was the oldest private school in Lakeland, a city of 110,000 an hour from Orlando. It could have been a role model for diversity, with students of color making up half its enrollment and the children of doctors, lawyers and truck drivers learning side by side. Instead, it’s another poster child for the demise of private schools in the Time of Coronavirus.

In coming months, more than 100 Catholic schools are expected to close. Hundreds if not thousands of other private schools will be hurt too. The recession is taking its toll on enrollment and philanthropy. And Covid-19 is creating unprecedented challenges for private schools trying to maintain, via online platforms, the culture and community that makes them special.

Articles like this, this and this are spotlighting the plight of private schools as Congress considers pleas for relief. But cold facts alone can’t express what’s at stake if these schools are allowed to collapse.

Take it from a family that once lost it all: “St. Joseph’s Academy became a place where we feel we belong from the heart,” Santana said. “Now … our hearts are broken.”

***

In Venezuela, Santana was a public school teacher and owner of a thriving dance academy. Her husband, Gerson Reina, ran his own small business, distributing baked goods for a multi-national company.

In 2014, Santana and an apprentice were leaving a mall when men rushed out of nowhere. They put the women in a car and blindfolded them.

“Don’t go back to my school. Don’t go back to my academy,” Santana said they told her. “They told me so many times, they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill my husband.”

Santana is a ballet dancer by training. She’s trim and athletic, modest and soft-spoken. It’s hard to imagine her as an enemy of the state, but she ran afoul of the regimes of Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. Chavez supporters told her, when she directed a government dance studio, that she had to praise the president and pledge support during recitals. Santana refused. The government fired her.

So Santana started her own school. More than 100 families followed her, and she encouraged directors of other government studios to do the same. They did, infuriating Chavez supporters.

One day, some of them followed her home and attacked her. The beating led to a miscarriage.

Fast forward to the kidnapping. After hours of driving, the men dropped Santana off in an unfamiliar place in another city. She was alive. But life in Venezuela was over.

***

In “Lost Classroom, Lost Community,” University of Notre Dame law professors Nicole Stelle Garnett and Margaret F. Brinig underscore the quiet power of Catholic schools.

For generations, Catholic schools in America have ably served immigrants and low-income families. They continue to propel low-income students into the middle class and save taxpayers untold billions. But that’s not all they do.

Analyzing crime data in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Garnett and Brinig found when Catholic schools disappear, crime rates rise and social bonds fray. “Catholic school closures lead to elevated levels of disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion,” they wrote.

That’s not to suggest the fetching bungalows around St. Joseph are in for a rash of burglaries. But it does show Catholic schools bring value not just to families they serve, but to communities they help anchor.

Other high-quality schools draw people of shared interest too. They inspire them to work together for the common good.

Sometimes, in the process, they make people whole again.

***

They travelled light. Just a few suitcases. Santana said selling the house or packing everything would have drawn suspicion, which could have led to darker outcomes.

Santana’s daughter Samira, now 12, wanted to take her stuffed animals, particularly a stuffed bunny. But there was no room and no time. “We left everything,” Samira said.

The family trekked to Miami with $2,000 to start a new life. Santana’s husband found work as a cashier in a gas station, but nothing that fit his skill set.

Santana fell into a funk. “My body was here, but my mind was in Venezuela,” she said. “I was thinking about my family, my students, my friends. I didn’t say goodbye.”

Santana’s husband expanded his job search, and finally got a bite: Frito Lay had an opening in Lakeland.

The family didn’t know anybody in Lakeland. But they liked the tree-covered neighborhoods and the respite from South Florida concrete. The peace and quiet offered a welcome contrast to the clang of pots and pans that characterized protests in Venezuela.

Hope began to grow.

***

Samira Santana, 12, will attend St. Anthony Catholic School in Lakeland in the fall.

The family began attending St. Joseph in 2016. Santana began volunteering at the church and working in the preschool, an aide in the faith formation program. She said she could she feel her mind and heart healing. “I could be myself again,” she said.

Santana wanted the same for her daughter.

Samira said the students in her neighborhood school didn’t understand her and didn’t really talk to her. They made fun of her accent and mocked her roots. “They looked up Venezuela and they said, ‘Oh she comes from a poor country.’ ”

In 2018, Samira enrolled in St. Joseph Academy. Then a sixth grader, she worried she wouldn’t make friends. But on the first day in the lunchroom, “The kids were like, ‘Come sit with us.’ “

“It felt,” she said, “like I belonged there.”

Samira made good grades, sang in the choir, discovered a love for musicals. She stepped up to play the mayor of Whoville in “Seussical” and the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland.” Now the once-shy girl who lost her country rocks a NASA T-shirt and loves astronomy.

After everything Samira’s been through, reaching for the stars isn’t so hard.

***

This fall, Samira will be an eighth grader at St. Anthony, another Catholic school in Lakeland. She only knows one other St. Joseph student making the switch. “St. Joseph was like having another family,” Samira said. “I don’t want to lose them.”

Santana knows she is fortunate Samira can attend another Catholic school, even if it’s 40 minutes from their home. But it doesn’t diminish the fact St. Joseph is gone.

“I think when you have lost so much, you cling more to what little or much you have gained,” Santana said. St. Joseph “was a gain for us as human beings.”

What better way to sum up what’s been lost. And what can still be saved.

 

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