Patrick J. Buechi/Staff - Diego Reynoso (left to right), Latosha White, Sydnie Perkins, Tiffany Valado, and Marina Rundo will realize their dream of attending college this fall, thanks to St. Luke's Mission of Mercy.
Eighteen years ago, St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy opened on Buffalo’s East Side, with the goal of performing the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. The mission’s founders have expanded those works to include educating the needy.
This fall, the crew at St. Luke’s will see five of its young clients enter college. Each student has a unique story, spotted with fear and worry, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but they all end with the same outcome – college.
Sydnie Perkins was born to a crack-addicted mother, just days after St. Luke’s opened its doors. Little was expected of the infant, including taking her first breath.
“My mom never really felt me move in her stomach. She thought I was dead because she was so heavily using crack cocaine. She thought I was going to be stillborn,” said Perkins, now 18. “When I came out, the doctors were going to take me away from my mother because I was addicted to crack and had so many drugs in my system. Amy (Betros, St. Luke’s co-founder) and my mom prayed so hard that she ended up keeping me and being able to take care of me.”
Perkins tested 99 percent on her motor skills and has not experienced any of the problems associated with being a crack baby. She considers herself a miracle.
To top off a successful four years at Holy Angels Academy in Buffalo, Perkins received a full four-year Urban Leadership Scholarship, which she will put to good use studying psychology and communications at Canisius College this fall. She is considering becoming a therapist.
Receiving the same scholarship is Tiffany Valado. Born in Los Angeles, she later moved to Canada, where she saw her mother deported to El Salvador. She heard about St. Luke’s through the religious sisters that taught her.
“We had nowhere else to go,” she said. “One of the sisters there knew Amy. At the time there was no place for us. So, my grandma accepted us at her house, and that’s how we came to be at St. Luke’s.”
Valado attended St. Luke’s home school program, followed by Holy Angels Academy. She too will attend Canisius this fall.
The Urban Leadership Learning Community Program accepts students who prove to be leaders in their community. Applicants must write an essay on how they are leaders and their extracurricular activities, offer letters of recommendation, and have a 45-minute interview about how they work in the community. “The whole basis of the scholarship is for people to help Buffalo, not move out. They want to see how the youth and the people who are underprivileged here can help out their community,” said Perkins.
Both Perkins and Valado volunteer time at St. Luke’s Mission Mall and Thanksgiving food giveaway. “It shows we can be leaders in our community and make a difference,” Valado said.
Diego Reynoso came to St. Luke’s through Vive Inc., which offers food, shelter and legal assistance to refugees. His family was deported from Canada six years after leaving their homeland of Argentina.
“When I was 4 years old, my family decided to come to Canada for better job opportunities and a better life for me, because back in my country it is not a good place to live. A lot of kids are abandoned and there is not a lot of hope down there,” he said. “My mom heard about St. Luke’s and all the miracles performed here. They help anybody they can. We decided to check it out. As soon as we came here they took care of the food, a place to live.”
Being an unprocessed alien, Reynoso lived with a constant fear of being deported to Argentina, leaving him apathetic about his future.
“At the time though, as a student and illegal immigrant, I didn’t have any hopes about doing anything at school, being active like that,” he said. “I was in total fear of being deported. What’s the point of getting high grades? For a good year I was in denial.” But then things turned around. He started working on improving his grades, and went on to achieve many awards.
He has been accepted by Trocaire College, where he plans to study law.
Marina Rumbo went through a similar experience. Also from Argentina, she came to St. Luke’s four or five years ago through Vive La Casa. Her mom heard about Betros through a friend. St. Luke’s found them a house on Oberlin Avenue, not far from St. Luke’s. The recent graduate from the Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts will attend Villa Maria College this fall to study Fashion Design and Merchandising.
“(St. Luke’s) helped us in a lot of ways,” she said. “They help us with clothes and food and shelter, with everything basically.”
An electrical fire in their house 10 years ago left Latosha White and her father homeless. Luckily, an aunt knew about St. Luke’s.
“One day we went to Mass and, basically, we’ve never been anywhere else. They gave us a place to live, food to eat,” she said.
Another grad from the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, White will study liberal arts at Trocaire. Currently she is unsure of what career she will follow.
“I’ve been taking different classes to see what I want,” she said. “I’m interested in writing, so maybe be an author.”
Just days before graduating she had an interview with the U.S. attorney’s office for a clerical job.
Not only has St. Luke’s provided them with shelter, a mentor in the form of Michael S. Taheri helps them with their studies. A 15-year vet of University at Buffalo Law School, Taheri has spent the last three years helping these students and others involved with St. Luke’s, with their English skills to prepare them for college-level work, and coaching them on how to handle the college experience.
“We do concrete coursework in English, reading and writing,“ said Taheri about his role in their lives. “I teach them how to write a resumé. I teach them how to write a cover letter. ‘What am I going to wear?’ Let’s talk about that.”
Taheri said the role of mentor and life coach for these East Side kids is more fulfilling that his career as a professor.
“I think all of these kids are solid Catholic citizens,” Taheri said. “What their deficiency would be is a command of the English language, and a direction as to how to be successful. They’re totally motivated, totally committed. In three years I’ve never had one cancellation from these kids,” he said, chalking it up to the hope these students now see for themselves.
“Now these kids are starting to believe in themselves. Before they said, ‘I can’t go to college because of my citizenship.’ They’re finding out that’s just not the case.”
Taheri works with seven other tutors, but could always use more for math and science. This summer he will partner with The Buffalo News and St. Luke’s to start a reading program for East Side kids.
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