by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OVERLAND PARK — This year’s Gaudeamus celebration, a fundraiser for the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF), had a record-breaking attendance and raised more than $1.2 million.
But for the evening’s student speaker, Bishop Ward senior Ailen Jorge, the night did more than break records.
It changed her life.
A senior at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, Jorge emigrated from Cuba with her family when she was a child.
A CEF scholarship enabled her and her two sisters to attend Catholic school.
Before her sophomore year at Bishop Ward, Jorge was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
It was devastating news for a 16-year-old to process.
“I pushed away from God,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me.”
Jorge traveled a long road of surgeries and treatments, but found support in her Catholic community at Bishop Ward.
“The only thing that would get me through was talking to my religion teacher about all the pain I carried in my heart,” she said.
She soon realized God was walking the journey with her, giving her strength and a new outlook on her life.
“My experience has shaped my plans for the future,” she said. “I plan to go to nursing school, and want to become a neonatal nurse practitioner.”
Today, Jorge has been cancer free for two years. She will graduate next spring and be the first in her family to attend college.
After her moving speech at Gaudeamus, it was announced that University of Saint Mary, Leavenworth, administrators, who were present at the event, were offering Jorge a full scholarship.
CEF board chair Terry Sexton took the stage after the announcement.
“The ripple effect of your generosity,” he told the audience, “truly extends into eternity.”
The evening’s highlight was the announcement of the 2018 Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann CEF School of Excellence.
Coincidentally, it was the grade school Jorge attended, Christ the King in Kansas City, Kansas.
Dr. Kathleen O’Hara, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, presented the award, saying the mission statement of Christ the King states simply what all Catholic schools strive to do: “Marry faith and scholarship.”
“If you walk the halls of Christ the King,” she said, “you’ll see a spirit of community that is unmatched.”
Principal Cathy Fithian and pastor Father Mark Mertes accepted the award.
“It’s a great honor to accept the School of Excellence award, especially knowing the great company of schools from which we were chosen,” said Fithian.
Fithian told the audience that Christ the King has a goal of leading its students to a joy-filled life, with Jesus as the focus.
Its mission is to form Christ-like thinkers for the kingdom of God — and the name of the school is both a privilege and a challenge to exemplify.
“Because we are Christ the King School,” said Fithian, “we feel called to represent him every day to all the people that we meet and serve.”
Fithian thanked CEF on behalf of her faculty, staff, students and families.
“We pray that God’s grace and generosity comes back to you, Archbishop Naumann, the Catholic Education Foundation and all of you — our supporters — a thousand times over,” she said.
The Michael and Patty Morrisey Angels Among Us Award was then presented to Hamp and Nikki Henning and Glenn and Joan Wells.
Each couple expressed their gratitude for being recognized by CEF.
It was the first Gaudeamus celebration for CEF’s new executive director Vince Anch and he was impressed with the hard work of the volunteers, particularly the committee chairs Pat and Shannon Lillis.
He was also grateful for the generosity of the patrons.
“I’m really excited to be able to meet so many wonderful people who make our mission possible,” he said.
After a closing prayer by the archbishop, which included his top 10 reasons to support the CEF (see sidebar), patrons were treated to an after-party dance featuring the live music of the KC Flo Band.