When Leo High School President Dan McGrath recruits students to the all-boys Catholic school in Auburn Gresham, he recruits their entire family.
He and the faculty at Leo are now helping those families during the trying times brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.
Thanks to a relief fund created by Leo alumni, as well as support from the Big Shoulders Fund, the school is distributing thousands of dollars worth of gift cards to school families, as well as hosting meal giveaways twice a week for families and area residents.
The relief fund also allows for tuition payments to be deferred for families who have lost their jobs.
McGrath, of Morgan Park, said the school wants to “help families as a whole.”
“Experience has shown us that a lot of our families come from somewhat disadvantaged backgrounds,” McGrath said. “If you’re a hair stylist, you’ve been shut down. We have a fair number of moms who provide day care in their home, and they’re out of business as well. Bartenders, restaurant servers—there’s a lot of people whose jobs have just gone away. It’s tough on them. The tuition deferment—we can do that. The meals, the gift cards, that just sort of grew out of a desire to help.”
Leo, 7901 S. Sangamon St., is known for its strong alumni support, especially within Beverly/Morgan Park and Mt. Greenwood, and alumni stepped up again to create the Bill Kay Relief Fund, named after Bill Koloseike, a member of the Class of 1945 who died in March at age 92.
Ray Siegel, Class of 1965 and Beverly native, was the “driving force” behind the fund, McGrath said, and contributed the first $10,000 a couple days after schools statewide were closed beginning on March 16. It quickly grew to $15,000.
Since the last week of March, the fund has provided gift cards to Leo families to buy groceries, fill prescriptions or for other household needs.
It also allows Leo to defer tuition payments by a month—or for as long as the school remains closed.
McGrath was humbled when Siegel contacted him about starting the fund. Naming it after Koloseike, who ran Bill Kay Auto Group and was the Leo Alumni Association Man of the Year in 2009, was a fitting choice.
“He was a phenomenally generous supporter [of Leo],” McGrath said. “He backed us for years and years and years. He helped us through some really lean times. He was a champion. He was very, very good to us.”
McGrath credited Siegel for contacting fellow 1965 graduates to bring in more donations. That’s kept Leo in stable condition financially while providing over $7,000 in gift cards to families.
“We have not had to touch our reserves,” McGrath said. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve been able to fund through this relief fund—and we still have quite a bit in it.”
The Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago-based organization that supports Catholic schools in the inner city, has financed the meal giveaways, McGrath said, continuing to be a “phenomenal partner” with Leo.
Three businesses provide the meals, including a Subway near the school and Red Palm restaurant in Evergreen Park, which is owned by 1975 Leo graduate Mike Nix and often hosts Leo events.
Red Palm puts together meals of wings, macaroni and cheese, and fruit cups—which have been “very well received,” McGrath said.
Families are encouraged to register before picking up the meals at the school, although walk-ups are welcome. Extra meals are donated to Greater Auburn Gresham Development, which distributes them to elderly homebound residents, and St. Leo’s Residence for Veterans, which is a half-mile northeast of Leo.
The giveaways are already arranged to continue through May, McGrath said, and will last as long as needed.
During the April 22 distribution, Leo faculty were outside the school offering Subway to passers-by.
“I don’t think we’ve turned anybody away,” McGrath said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
Leo Principal Shaka Rawls, Class of 1993, said the charitable efforts fulfill two needs—keeping students well-fed and healthy during the public-health crisis, and addressing emotional needs by visiting families in person.
If Leo is financially able to help, he said, it will do that.
“We will never get away from our mission—the mission to service the community during this time,” Rawls said. “This is why Leo High School is here, is to provide services for the community in times of need. We’ve always served the working corps; we’ve always serviced the working-class families, and this is just an extension of that.”
Leo recently hosted a third-quarter honors assembly via the Zoom video-call application, McGrath said, and students are completing e-learning assignments.
Sophomore Robert Smith visited on April 22 to pick up lunch and check in with teachers.
He said he emails his teachers regularly and is staying on top of his work.
“At the end of the day, you can still fail,” Smith said. “You’re getting work, and if you don’t do it, your grade’s going to drop.”
Leo is expected to enroll over 200 students next year, McGrath said, and enrollment has climbed 40 percent since Rawls became principal before the 2016-17 school year.
McGrath said Rawls “is an effective educator” who “knows how to run a school.”
While he is friendly with students, he also commands respect.
McGrath believes Rawls’ approach combined with Leo’s recent efforts demonstrate what the school is all about.
“I can’t say enough about the job he has done,” McGrath said. “The kids feel good about being here; their parents feel good about having them here.
“I think by being there for them in a time like this, it really re-enforces that we do care about them and want to help them get through this.”
For more information on the relief fund, visit leohighschool.org.