Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic School Forms Students

Everyone who has ever sent a child to a Catholic school knows it’s a struggle to pay tuition.

Norkisha Epps knows this because she works two jobs to send her children to Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis, and she is beginning to see the fruits of her labors.

Epps is a product of Catholic outreach, and a true success story.

In 1986, she said she was one of the first children to enroll in the Griffin Center after-school program.

Daughter of Charity, Sister Julia Huiskamp, had arrived in East St. Louis in 1984 and began her work at Catholic Urban Programs where she saw that children needed to be engaged. She began to build the framework for the after-school program with Diane Sonneman assisting her.

Fast forward to 2015 when Sister Julia celebrated her 80th birthday, and Sonneman is now Griffin Center director. Griffin Center’s four sites serve children from six public housing projects.

Epps works part-time at John DeShields, one of those sites, helping children as a lead tutor in the site’s learning lab.

She describes Sister Julia and Sonneman as two of her three “angels.”

Sister Julia introduced Epps to her friend, Sheila Burton, who became the third angel for a child who lived at Griffin Homes.

The three adults “molded me into the person I am,” Epps said. “I’m not a selfish person, and I’m not an angry person. It feels good to make someone’s day.”

Throughout her youth, Burton mentored Epps, who asked if she could bring other friends to outings Burton arranged.

Burton then brought more of her friends to their gatherings, and the Girls Club was born. It morphed into the PY Teen (that would be Pretty Young Teen), Epps said.

They all grew together with their goals adjusted for their ages. Each year, those who had met the personal goals they had set, went on an outing.

“We were exposed to different activities,” Epps said. “It feels like I’ve started something” with the club.

Now called Join Hands, the mentoring program began with 16 girls. Of those original 16, five of their children are now in college, including Naudia, one of Epps’ daughters, who is a freshman at University of Illinois after graduating from Althoff Catholic High School in 2015.

Epps said she decided to send her children to a Catholic school after her own experiences in public school.

She had participated in gifted classes, but when she went to college, she was required to take remedial classes before she could begin her certificate program in education at Southwestern Illinois College.

“I didn’t want my children to go through that,” she said, and signed Naudia up at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School.

Now, three of her children attend the school with one more youngster at home, getting ready to enroll.

Her eighth-grade twins have been accepted at Althoff as well as Nerinx Hall in St. Louis.

The twins have been accepted into the National Junior Honor Society, and their mother can’t be prouder of them.

“Sister Thea is very strict,” she said, and you have to train your children to walk in the right direction.”

The school not only qualifies but exceeds her expectations. She knows the school because as a parent, she volunteered at various activities, she said.

The twins, Ja Maya and Jasmine Bonner, are preparing to go to high school after studying at the school since kindergarten, they said.

“The teachers are so concerned about us,” Jasmine said.

Ja Maya said she didn’t know of other schools with extracurricular activities like their school. The girls have studied violin and take ballroom dance classes.

Second-grader Jailah Bonner, is just beginning her career at Sister Thea, but is quite at home.

“I’m very proud of them,” Epps said. “I can give them everything they need, not necessarily everything they want.”

She works with children every day at the DeShields site and sees growth in them much as her three angels have watched her grow and mature.

It takes grit and determination, she said, thinking about the lesson she would participate in teaching during that day’s after-school program.

With her personal formation and seeing how Sister Thea Bowman has and is preparing her children, she doesn’t worry about their success.

“You’ll always have bumps in the road,” she said, “but God always comes in” and helps find a way forward.

Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School received $80,640 from the 2015 Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal. Please support the 2016 appeal and give what you can.