INDIANTOWN | Miracles happen every day at one Catholic school dedicated to educating, supporting and giving hope to mostly immigrant and migrant families and their children over the decades and generations.
“Visitors to Hope Rural School will often say, ‘I didn’t know this wonderful school existed,’” said Dominican Sister Elizabeth Dunn, director of the nonprofit located in rural Martin County, east of Lake Okeechobee.
Indiantown has a population of more than 6,000, according to the 2010 census, was originally established by Seminole Indians seeking a safe haven after the Seminole War. Over the decades, the area has been home to migrant and immigrant farmworkers, many coming from Guatemala in the 1980s escaping economic hardships, violence, and civil wars in their own country.
Today, many of the transplants have established firm roots in the quiet town. Some people work on farms; others work in landscaping, the service industry or operate their own business. Most are Catholics and parishioners of Holy Cross Parish situated next to Hope Rural School.
“We are very small in the sight of the world, but know we are profoundly capable of very, very important things,” said Sister Dunn going into her fifth year at the school with assistant Dominican Sister Martha Rohde, principal, and 10 full-time educators, four part-time teachers and nearly 40 volunteer tutors.
Hope Rural School, founded and incorporated by Father Frank O’Loughlin, a retired Palm Beach diocesan priest, and Society of the Sacred Heart Sister Carol Putnam, moves forward towards its 40th anniversary in 2020. Through the financial support of individuals, Hope Rural School, a fully accredited institution, continues to nourish the spiritual and educational development of the child and hold steadfast to the school’s original mission: “offering hope to families.”
The institute and its dedicated educators and leaders are definitely touching lives and profoundly doing significant things. “I graduated from Hope Rural in 2010,” said Suzie Lopez, who received her associate degree from Indian River State College in Fort Pierce in December.
“I want to be a pediatrician,” Lopez said, among 18 alumni students who at this time are receiving education through Hope Rural’s Vilma Shaw Scholars Program. Lopez is currently working at the school helping children with reading difficulties as her small way of giving back. She hopes to continue studies in the fall and earn a medical degree.
“I was born here. My mother is from Mexico and my father is from Guatemala. I think Hope Rural School gave me a strong foundation,” the young woman said, who also volunteers time at Holy Cross Parish serving as a lector and religion teacher. “It helped me build character and prepare me. I love everything about this school. Everything is positive.”
This year, Hope Rural is serving 142 students in grades pre-k 3 to grade 5, and 84 percent of the enrollment consists of children of families from Guatemala and Mexico. In total, 12 percent of the student body is made up of students from Haitian families.
The school provides scholarships, which covers tuition for every student. A $200 contribution fee is the only costs associated with enrollment. As part of the school program, a nutritious breakfast and lunch are made possible through the Federal government lunch program each day.
The Florida Catholic visited the campus in December to learn about some of the educational challenges the school has faced over the years and to observe and tour facilities. Two school ambassadors, Joshua Sejour and Dainaara Faebien, both 10, showed us around.
Dainaara is new to the school coming from public school and Joshua grew up at Hope Rural. He knew every nook and cranny of the school and the history of everyone there. “I like to show people how wonderful the school is,” explained the young man, who wants to be a marine biologist.
The tour offered a glimpse of Catholic education at its best—safe and nurturing environments throughout the campus and student support, guidance and encouragement from all the educators and even the staff encouraging positive thinking throughout the environment.
“I have been here for 20 years,” Erin Dilla said, a first-grade teacher who came to Hope Rural after graduating from college. “The kids want to be at school. I want to be here. I love the community, the families and the kids.”
Hope Rural offers many initiatives made possible through support of donors, volunteers, and organizations to serve and better meet the needs of the students and their families. Some students come from households where family members only speak the language of their origin, and some family members have minimal education and are unable to assist their children with home studies. Other parents work long hours and more than one job consuming their time.
Hope Rural School encourages the entire family through education offering English classes for adults, parenting programs, and even a gardening project designed to get all of the family involved in growing food for the table. As part of initiatives, Hope Rural also provides an afterschool program keeping children busy with homework and various development activities, and in-partnership with Martin County Literacy Council, a reading program with a literacy tutor, makes bi-monthly visits to participating families.
The families of the students are 98 percent Catholic according to Sister Dunn, and a Catholic education with its loving and rich faith climate is very important to them. The school works closely with Holy Cross Parish and its pastor and clergy. Weekly Masses are organized for students and prayer is a big part of everything.
“The families are very religious, and they are pleased that religion is part of their education,” Sister Dunn said. “We begin our day with prayers. We pray for a lot of people. People from around the world send us prayer requests.”
Sister Rohde has been an educator for 47 years. She told the Florida Catholic during an interview that it was her passion for education and God’s call to spread the Gospel and make a difference that has kept her doing what she does.
“The faith, love and support given to and from our students, parents and staff is a visible sign of our mission to offer hope to families and to provide and environment that nurtures the Gospel values of mercy, justice and love,” she said. “We have unique gifts that can encourage the growth of faith-filled, knowledgeable and discerning adults of the future.”
At the end of December, Sister Dunn sent out a newsletter to friends, donors, supporters and associates of the school thanking all for continued assistance and support. The newsletter entitled “Journey of Hope” has a large image of a globe on the front with a tiny red star pinpointing the location of Indiantown.
“Being signs of courageous hope is what we continue to shout out to the world,” she said in her newsletter message. “We at Hope Rural School continue to be humbled by the commitment of many donors, volunteers and friends who have joined us along the way and have remained with us through the years.”