By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 17, 2009
st. Ann Church is some 37 miles from Our Lady of Mercy High School, but a budding relationship between the affluent suburban parish on the north side of Atlanta and the Catholic high school where one in five student families lives below the poverty line is what organizers of the GRACE Scholars program hope to grow.
Parishioners are “very excited and fired up” about the new connection, said Liz Merrick, the ministry coordinator and stewardship director at the Marietta parish.
“We kind of have a whole roll-out plan,” that includes recruiting ambassadors for the program, working with ministries and then bringing in the whole parish, Merrick said.
GRACE, Georgia Residents Assisting Children’s Education, is a student scholarship organization to help parents afford tuition at Catholic schools. It does it through a state program that allows residents to redirect tax dollars to the organization, which then distributes the money to students with a financial need. It is a joint program of the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Savannah Diocese.
The link between the parish, with some 4,000 families, and the 273-student school is possible after GRACE Scholars adopted new policies for year two of the program to draw more financial support from the Catholic community.
“It is a great opportunity for church communities to come together and participate. They can help Catholic education and can strengthen the school and get reimbursed 100 percent with a tax credit,” said Pat Mannelly, the volunteer who is spearheading the effort to get the word out about GRACE.
The new policies are:
l Scholarship money is set aside for the student’s whole academic career. The tuition assistance is provided yearly as long as there is still a financial need and the student remains in good academic standing.
l Scholarships are awarded on financial need only. In the past, students could be ineligible if families earned above a maximum salary level.
l Donors designate contributions to their school of choice.
The third change is the one GRACE leaders hope spark Catholics in larger numbers to join the program. It allows parishioners to designate what schools receive their contributions.
Mannelly said more parishioners may participate if they know they can direct their support, for example, to their child’s or grandchild’s school, to the school they attended, to their parish school, or any other school they choose. Other successful scholarship programs link donors with specific schools and raise lots of money, said Mannelly, who retired from Coca-Cola Enterprises and is the volunteer director of GRACE. He attends St. Ann Church.
As the relationship grows between schools and donor parishes, the tax benefit may fade as a reason to give once a personal connection develops, he said. One idea is to bring GRACE Scholars to parishes that donate so students can greet donors and donors can learn what the funds have done for the students.
Mannelly has visited more than 30 parishes to cheerlead for GRACE. Mannelly said he makes sure people understand he is not asking them to dig deeper into their wallet to support GRACE.
People pay the money already when they pay their state taxes. The question is whether people want it to go entirely into state coffers or redirect a portion of it to GRACE Scholars, he said. Making that point takes some time, but once the process is clear to people, they are enthusiastic, he said.
“They are skeptical. It’s too good to be true. In the course of 15 to 20 minutes, you see the light bulb go on. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, this is a no-brainer,” he said.
If donors are so generous to one school that it has a surplus of tuition aid money, GRACE has established a fund to help the most needy of students. The surplus is pooled into what is called an economically disadvantaged fund. That money will be available for families throughout the Georgia Catholic school system.
Giving money to GRACE takes four steps. making it important people submit the initial paperwork to the state by October, Mannelly said. All the information is available on the Web site.
At St. Ann Church, there is no parish school, so this opportunity is seen as a way to help a school in need, Merrick said.
At a recent meeting, 20 ministry leaders met with Our Lady of Mercy High School principal, Danny Dorsel, to learn about the school and its needs. The school accepted six GRACE Scholars for the current school year, the largest influx of students so funded in the archdiocesan school system.
Few people were aware of the GRACE program, but by its end, they embraced the idea and are anxious to get the whole parish involved, Merrick said, adding that a friendly competition has started to get the most donors.
Information about the application is on the GRACE Web site, www.gracescholars.org.