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Bravery & Sacrifice: Profile of a Volunteer Extraordinaire

Posted on March 28, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Meet Rosendo Mejia

Searching for words to explain why he remained, then left, his impoverished Dominican Republic village more than a decade after his wife and children legally immigrated to the United States, all Rosendo Mejia could come up with was that someone had to stay to make things better. 

Although beautiful, their small town of Brisas del Este, wedged between the ocean and river,  had no school, no paved roads and, worst of all, no clean water.  As an attorney, he had the know-how and connections to lead the fight for improvements. 

“My family needed me and my community needed me,” says this compact man whose intense black eyes contrast with his height as he explains his evolution from neighborhood to school leader.  “I wanted my children to be able to get an education, have opportunities and pursue their dreams.  I looked to heaven and asked God what to do.”

After Mr. Mejia finally succeeded in getting a school, paved streets and clean water for his small village, he rejoined his family in New York City in October 2015.  He visited his children’s George Washington High School for Health Career and Sciences, a community school that receives support services for children and families from Catholic Charities Alianza division,  noticed a lack of parental involvement, and two days after his arrival in the United States, volunteered as a parent leader.

To compensate for all their time apart when finally reunited with his family, he used the same focus as a volunteer at his children’s community school support program in Washington Heights run by Catholic Charities Alianza division.  His activism proved so significant it was covered by press in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, his success organizing fellow parents for Alianza proved so significant he was named its first volunteer promoted to staff.

Community schools recognize that students who are hungry, can’t see the blackboard, or are missing school regularly face critical obstacles to learning in the classroom. Alianza’s soup-to-nuts social service support offers an alternative to the lure of the streets.  At least two New York City Police department vans routinely park in front of the school and an NYPD squad car parks on the school lawn.

Mr. Mejia’s teenage son and daughter, Rosendo Jr. and Camila, overcome their neighborhood’s challenges by participating in Alianza In School Youth programs.  There they hone their talents, take advantage of SAT prep classes, visit college campuses and receive support similar to students attending more exclusive schools.

But without parent participation, the program’s impact was limited.

“I saw so few parents and realized they needed volunteers,” Mr. Mejia says. “So they gave me a sweater emblazed ‘Parent Volunteer.’  And that’s when I began this beautiful history that keeps growing.”

When Mr. Mejia began he called a PTA meeting that only 15 parents attended.  The next month 40 parents showed up. Then 60. Then 80.  He initiated adult education classes including English as a Second language, GED training and computer literacy to help parents provide better for their children.  He kicked off a “Parent Walk-Thru” where parents visit their children’s classes each month to see what they are studying.  And he took on a caseload of 30 students with high absenteeism rates, working with them and their families until their attendance became among the highest in the school.

So extraordinary was his success that Catholic Charities created a paid part-time parent leader position for him.

“He was an asset so we said let’s get him on board,” says Catholic Charities Alianza Community Schools Director Peter Tinguely.

While now a paid staff member, Mr. Mejia continues to volunteer at his children’s school. He is the first to arrive every morning and the last to leave.

“Many people helped me and my brother and sister to become who we are now,” Mr. Mejia says.  “I learned then that we are nothing unless we help another person.” 

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