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St. Mary’s High hopes to match $100,000 challenge grant

DUTCHTOWN – Even a Dragon can’t defeat the coronavirus by itself. St. Mary’s High School, whose mascot is the Dragon, is hoping supporters will rally ’round to help its hundreds of students and also the school’s outreach to the neighborhood.

St. Mary’s, 4701 S Grand Blvd., is designating Friday, May 1, as a special giving day, asking for donations to match a $100,000 challenge grant to raise a total of $200,000 – or more.

Mike England, St. Mary’s president, explained in a recent interview on KTRS 550 AM radio that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic had forced the cancellation of the school’s annual spring auction.

“That’s about a $200,000 hit,” he explained. So he and other St. Mary’s officials came up with the idea of GiveSTM.

“We’re a Marianist school at St. Mary’s, and we talk about the characteristics of Marian education, and one of those is quality education through adaptation and change,” England told host McGraw Milhaven. “And if there was ever a time for adaptation and change, it’s now.”

“Not only have our teachers done a wonderful job of adapting and changing, but our students have done a wonderful job as well.”

The key is trying to keep “as much normalcy and as much connection as we can.”

A giving portal,, has been set up on the St. Mary’s website,, and is expected to be active as of Thursday, April 30. England encouraged donors to feel free to send money any time, however!

The money will help keep students fed and in class with their friends. About 63 percent of the students receive financial aid, England said.

He noted that 67 percent of the schools’ students live in the city. The majority of those (55 percent of the 67 percent) live in areas of south St. Louis, with a median family income of $35,000, he said. Thirty-two percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Hungry students who haven’t gotten onto the government list can also get help.

Joseph Divis, Director of Advancement at St. Mary’s, explained the school’s “Feed a Dragon” program, which is funded entirely by private donations.

If staff notice that a student isn’t eating, or isn’t eating adequately, at lunch, that student may be put on the “Feed a Dragon” list.

“Young men are added to this list if something has changed that we are seeing them not partake in lunch,” Divis said. “The state doesn’t help in this scenario; this is a completely internally funded and monitored program to help our young men. It’s hard to do anything if you’re hungry, especially learn.”

Normally, at the school’s auction, attendees get together to kick in money to feed Dragons. Donors vie to outdo one another in giving, Divis said, but the funds all go into one pot to pay for those students’ lunches all year.

Beyond St. Mary’s own family, the school helps others.

“St. Mary’s is an anchor in our neighborhood in a number of ways,” England said in an email.

All students participate in an annual Day of Service in October, doing practical chores for nearby residents; the school also lets other groups use its campus; and it’s helping to renovate neighboring houses and move new homeowners in.

“We share our facilities with groups that serve at-risk people that live in our neighborhood,” he explained, offering a list of the school’s ties:

  • The Umoja Soccer Club (a neighborhood soccer club made up entirely of African immigrants; the schools gives them access to its turf field every Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m., for free)
  •  New Dimensions (a nonprofit that works with K-3 elementary students teaching them the game of soccer along with life skills; again, the schools lets them use its field and gym for free)
  • St. Cecelia’s soccer program (uses the front field for free)
  • TAP (the Tax Assistance Program) uses the school building for six weeks each February and March, preparing tax returns at no charge for residents making less than $40,000 a year.
  • The St. Joseph Housing Initiative. The SJHI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that began as part of Archbishop Robert Carlson’s response to the Ferguson report, and St. Mary’s has been involved with building this organization from the beginning. Its office is at St. Mary’s.

“We purchase homes and renovate them to the highest quality,” England said.

Damond Wiley, a student at St. Mary’s High School, carries a piece of carpet from a house in south St. Louis in March 2019. The school’s students help the St. Joseph Housing Initiative clear out and clean homes being renovated for low-income, first-time buyers.
Photo by Lisa Johnston |
Divis added in a phone interview that St. Mary’s students helped with the renovations – “mostly by demolition!” he said. The houses that the SJHI targets have to be gutted and cleared of debris before renovation can begin. Licensed contractors do all the skilled work, Divis assured a reporter.

England said that most recently the SJHI had renovated two of three vacant houses on Alaska Avenue and sold one.

“Our mission is to provide low- and moderate-income families the ability to become homeowners for the first time. This allows these families to not only lower their home payments but also build up their own personal wealth and equity by owning a home.”

So the special day of giving on Friday is crucial for the school, its students and the neighborhood.

“We’re not going to turn anybody away; we’re going to make this work for all of families,” England vowed. “St. Mary’s is a very inclusive school, we’re a very diverse school … we’re not going to turn anybody away because their situation has changed because of this virus. …  We’re going to have to come up with some more financial support for these families.

“This virus shouldn’t have to take away things that people value.”

For more information, contact Joe Divis, Director of Advancement, at 314-481-8400 x112 or

June Heath

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