by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bill Reardon got his bachelor’s degree from Rockhurst and a master’s from UMKC.
But it was a day from his years at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, that he treasures most.
Sister Jerome Keeler, the college’s foundress, had invited a friend to the college to recite his poetry to the students.
And that’s how the young Reardon got a front row seat to a poetry reading by Robert Frost.
Reardon, a longtime state representative and then teacher at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, said that every Donnelly student has a unique story.
“What unites them all,” said the Donnelly Hall of Fame inductee, is that “they are looking for someone to give them a chance — to actuate the potential God has blessed them with.”
They all found that someone at Donnelly College.
At the college’s 12th annual SHINE event on Sept. 28, college president Msgr. Stuart Swetland kicked off the annual fundraiser touting the institutions 69-year history of “giving special consideration to those on the margins.”
He then shared with patrons his vision for the campus — at the heart of which is a state-of-the-art academic building.
“The new building will be a symbol of our ongoing commitment to our community,” he said.
Guests were then treated to the inspiring stories of siblings and alumnae, Alejandra and Mariana Valles.
The sisters’ family migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2000 when Alejendra was 8 years old and Mariana was 4.
Both young women described the challenges of adapting to a school environment in which they didn’t look like their peers and could not speak the language.
But both persevered and graduated from high school — with honors.
Though bright and talented, the sisters feared both the cost and their status made higher education impossible.
But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy gave them hope. And Donnelly College allowed them to shine.
“I saw light at the end of my tunnel when I found Donnelly for a bachelor’s degree,” said Alejandra.
At Donnelly, Alejandra found a welcoming staff and faculty committed to building community.
“They challenge everyone who walks through the door to pursue excellence,” she said.
When she graduated, Alejandra accepted a position with Donnelly as an admissions counselor.
She’s also pursuing a Master’s of Business Administration at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We all face challenges in our life,” she added. “But that’s what makes us stronger.”
Alejandra’s younger sister Marianna pursued advanced math and science classes in high school, but had no hope of attending college — until she came to Donnelly.
“There, I found a sense of belonging,” she said. “At Donnelly, I found a community.
“Everyone believed in me even though I didn’t always believe in myself.”
Marianna has gone on from Donnelly to Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, where she is the only student to receive the Trustee Scholarship, which covers her tuition for two years.
“I hope someday to come back as a [Donnelly College] Hall of Fame member,” she said.
The sisters thanked all who helped them on their journey, especially their parents, who were present at the celebration.
“Without your help,” Alejandra told the crowd, “stories like ours would not be possible.”
Alumnus and current board chair Dan Braum introduced this year’s Donnelly Hall of Fame inductees — Reardon from the class of 1961 and Rev. Desmond Lamb, from the class of 2000.
Reverend Lamb, the pastor of Forest Grove Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, teaches at Donnelly College and oversees its prison program.
He said he was “humbled and honored” to be recognized as a proud alumnus of Donnelly.
“I was a young African-American male spinning out of control,” he recalled. “And the Sisters treated me like their own son.”
He went on from Donnelly to receive a bachelor’s degree from Park University in Parkville, Missouri.
He now travels to Lansing prison on Mondays and Wednesdays to teach the prisoners there.
“When you give to Donnelly you help people like me,” he said. “I will cherish this night for the rest of my life.”