An alumna from Chestnut Hill College’s School of Graduate Studies recently co-authored a nonfiction book that recounts the lives and stories of immigrant and refugee students from a parochial school in West Philadelphia.
Alumna Judy Stavisky, M.Ed., SGS '91, is co-author of “Do It Better!: How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone's Expectations.” Stavisky wrote the book with Constance Touey and Jeannette Lucey, I.H.M., who both teach at St. Francis de Sales, and Terrence McNally.
To learn how the book was imagined, written and published, Chestnut Hill College conducted a Q&A with Stavisky. Below is the interview.
How did you become involved with co-authoring the book?
The sisters and I met about 25 years ago when I worked with a city-wide health insurance plan for low-income Philadelphians. Given the increasing costs of emergency room visits, reducing violence-related injuries in Southwest Philly became a priority. We asked the community how we could support their efforts to prevent violence in their neighborhood.
The sisters, working from a scrappy little Catholic school on 47rd and Baltimore Ave., caught our eye. Their approach was unusual — reduce violence by prominently displaying the children with the courage not to fight. The sisters changed the entire culture of St. Francis de Sales School (SFDS) with that effort. And we learned there was much more to their method. High expectations were set for the students, who had a staggering array of losses and sorrows, both the youngsters from the surrounding neighborhood and the children immigrants and refugees who found their way to the school.
In the intervening years, the sisters and I have kept in touch. When I left my full-time position as national executive director for a long-term mentoring program, I committed a day a week to work at SFDS. That’s when I heard about the sisters’ idea to gather the stories of their students. I convinced them that the stories were too powerful and too important to have xeroxed and tucked into a plastic cover.
What is the book about?
The book chronicles the stories of several children who suffered almost unspeakable trauma on their journey to the United States. Equally important, the book features the neighborhood children, with significant challenges of their own, who welcomed wave after wave of immigrants and refugees. Having unshakable faith in the ability of any child to succeed, regardless of their circumstances, lies at the core of our book.
What motivated you to take on this project?
Both the sisters and I have been heartbroken about the strident, divisive and often mean-spirited conversations regarding our nation’s newest arrivals. “Do It Better!” showcases the limitless potential of immigrants and refugees. We share the situations of real children, the barriers they faced and their remarkable successes.
With four authors, what role did you personally play in writing the book — from its inception to publication?
Once the sisters drafted the stories, I assumed the role of detective, tracking down former students who graduated decades ago in the pre-internet era. We wanted to include the students’ voices about their experiences at SFDS. As we followed their circuitous travels from SFDS to college and beyond, we found several graduates, each delighted to speak with me. I arranged to interview the grads, either in person or over the phone.
The sisters are amateur archivists — through the years, they saved cardboard boxes and files overflowing with original art work, poetry and hand-written notes. “Do It Better!” featured some of those treasures, enriching the text for the reader.
All the drafts and interviews were reviewed with Terry McNally, a professional story teller and writer and a co-author of the book. Together, we edited and revised the stories, mailing multiple versions back and forth between the four of us. With the notion that one can tell a book by its cover, it was my job to find a professional photographer and book designer to capture the spirit of the book on its cover. We also contracted with two book editors to assure our book flowed in a logical order and was grammatically correct.
Did you enjoy the process? Do you have any interesting stories to share?
The process has been a sheer joy for me! I was astonished by the number of students who still kept in touch with one another — over two decades after they left the school! Keep in mind, too, that SFDS only extended to 8th grade.
There have been numerous weddings between the SFDS students, many from different cultures. It was striking to me that these students attribute their positive views of other cultures and their numerous successes to the years they spent at SFDS. Friendships made in an environment where each child is valued was a life-altering experience for these students.
One of my favorite SFDS stories centers on a child from Sierra Leone who was convinced that one of the religious sisters had given birth to all the children who attended the school.
Why should people read this book?
The book speaks to the power of unconditional love for one’s fellow man and woman and provides real-world examples, not just words. It underscores the point that, with only a few resources, a school and its committed staff can provide a salve for children who feel broken. The book is a short read, only 147 pages, but will inspire the reader with hope and optimism.
Now that you’re a published author, do you plan on writing any future books? If so, what would your ideal book be about?
The lives of Amish women have always fascinated me. Over the past five years, I have met a number of Amish women and developed friendships with them. In many respects, we are as different as we are the same. I am hopeful I might provide a factual entry into their world with an upcoming book.
As a graduate of Chestnut Hill College, how did the College prepare you for not only your career, but also your life?
On the occasion of my wedding, my husband rolled up the receipt for the tuition fees to Chestnut Hill College, secured it into a velvet ring box and presented it to me as a gift. I then returned to college as an adult and obtained my master’s in education.
At the time I graduated from Chestnut Hill College, there was an overabundance of teachers in Philadelphia. As a consequence, there were few jobs for newly minted educators. I combined my M.Ed. with my master’s in public health and joined a Medicaid health insurance plan. Working with vulnerable populations, I used my education background and launched a program teaching soon-to-be mothers about their pregnancies. I was also able to develop a bilingual asthma education program for Spanish-speaking parents.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a large health philanthropy, was my next career stop. Building upon my educational background, I developed academic pipelines for people of color and low-income students into the health professions. I also led a project to expand urban and rural school-based health centers to include mental and dental health services.
Following my work at the foundation, I assumed the helm of a national mentoring program. My early years of teaching demonstrated to me that children with consistent, caring adults in their lives can thrive and overcome many adversities.
Although the venues for educating others have varied over the years, my experience at Chestnut Hill College provided me a sturdy platform from which to develop a deeply satisfying career.
“Do It Better!: How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone's Expectations” is currently on sale in the CHC Bookstore, at www.thewelcomeschool.com and on Amazon at www.amazon.com/Do-Better-Exceeded-Everyones Expectations/dp/0692972943/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=1543978563&sr=8-1
- Kevin Dicciani