Catholic Alumni Partnership reconnects former students with diocesan elementary schools

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PROVIDENCE — For many living in the Diocese of Providence, the words “Catholic school” evoke common memories: memories of walking the halls with classmates, of having school uniforms hemmed and re-hemmed before the start of each new year, of sitting at Mass while the teacher — perhaps a religious brother or sister — arranges the class into neat rows.

For most alumni of Catholic elementary schools, these memories are left far in the past. Despite the importance of this period in a child’s development, adults tend to turn to their high schools and universities when attending reunions or offering donations, often forgetting the schools that gave them their start. However, the Catholic Alumni Partnership, a recent initiative by the diocesan Catholic School Office and the Office of Stewardship and Development, seeks to change that.

“What I’ve been trying to do is reach out to people who have graduated the school — try to get alums to come back to their school and get involved in it,” said Kim Izzi, principal of St. Rose of Lima School, Warwick, one of several schools around the diocese involved in the program. “Inviting people back to the school who maybe have not been in touch with the community in a while.”

The diocesan Catholic Alumni Partnership (CAP) is part of a nationwide program begun in 2008 to assist Catholic elementary schools in creating a sustainable source of support by reengaging alumni from the near and distant past. While alumni engagement programs are standard at most private high schools and universities, limited resources often prevent Catholic elementary schools from maintaining a strong network of former students who once called their hallways home.

One of the largest obstacles facing schools wishing to reconnect with alumni is a lack of available contact information. In many schools, student records go back decades and contain outdated addresses, surnames and telephone numbers. Even the task of inputting records into a computer to create digital mailing lists from years-worth of paper forms can be daunting for a small elementary school staff.

“It’s tough because the resources are slim,” said Rebecca Page Perez, diocesan CAP project manager. “If we can reach out and spend the time now, it helps.”

The CAP program offers resources and professional development support to assist schools through the initial stages of collecting data and creating a mailing list. For some schools, this support may help to grow already existing alumni engagement programs. For others, the project is entirely new.

“I found in our supply room these boxes at the top of a shelf that had the records of all the graduates going back to 1955,” said Andrew Brassard, principal of St. Augustine School, Providence. The school was able to recover information on 1,600 alumni and reached out to them in October. An alumnus of the school, Brassard said he has been able to get in touch with old classmates who contacted the school after receiving the invitation to reconnect.

“We haven’t really delved into alumni connections until this year,” said Brassard. “With this CAP program, I’m trying to reach out to former alumni to get involved in the school and help us in some way.”

According to Lisa Lydon, director of advancement at Mercymount Country Day School, Cumberland, alumni connections are a familiar piece of the school’s long-term development plan. However, even a seasoned alumni engagement program faces obstacles, and CAP has been instrumental in pushing the Mercymount program forward over the past year.

“Part of the problem is we had an alumni list but it was never really updated,” said Lydon. After taking advantage of the resources offered through CAP, the school was able to add 1,300 alumni contacts to its mailing list, nearly doubling the number of people who receive annual newsletters and invitations to contribute financially or attend school events.

Lydon also said the CAP program presents opportunities for educators and administrators to share ideas and participate in shared professional development. “It’s a great support system, especially for those who are just starting out,” she said.

One of the main goals of CAP is to reach out to alumni who may be willing to make a financial contribution to their former school. Alumni engagement has become an essential part of modern fundraising as schools and nonprofit organizations increasingly turn to these connections over traditional sources of revenue.

“It’s a sustainable giving program for the schools,” said Daniel Ferris, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence. “We’re trying to get the schools to move away from nickel and dime fundraisers that go back to the parents over and over again. Let’s reengage the people who’ve been the greatest beneficiaries of Catholic education, the alumni.”

On a deeper level, though, establishing contact with alumni promises benefits far beyond a possible financial contribution. As several school administrators pointed out, alumni have a wealth of life and career experience to offer their Catholic schools, and both current and former students can benefit from a closely networked school community.

“There is the obvious need for financial support, but more effective is the connection between the alumni community and the current student body,” said Jenn Anzelone, director of development at St. Pius V School, Providence. “I would love our students to really see alums, get to know them, see what they are doing in the world today. Current students and alumni have a lot to learn from each other.”

In addition to offering students career and other advice, alumni who continue to be engaged with their Catholic schools often serve on boards of directors, volunteer at events or promote the school among family and friends. In turn, these alumni have the opportunity to participate in reunion events and reconnect with their past as they witness the growth of their former elementary schools.

“When you work with such great people in the Catholic school system, they all bring their uniqueness to the school,” said Page Perez, herself an alumna of St. Rocco School, Johnston, with two sons currently enrolled there.

For alumni who wish to contribute financially, the Catholic School Office and the Office of Stewardship and Development recently launched a CAP website that allows benefactors to offer donations online. Former students have the option to select their school from a drop-down list, ensuring that all donations go to the chosen recipient. Unspecified donations or those from alumni of closed schools, known as “legacy schools,” support the Anchor of Hope Fund, which provides Catholic school scholarships to students in need around the state.

“This is people wanting to connect with something that brought great value to your life, formed you as an individual,” said Ferris. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, but you can see progress. We’re pioneers in this.”

To learn more about the Catholic Alumni Partnership, visit catholicschools.org.