By Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Servant-in-chief.
That’s the title Matt Schambari prefers.
And it’s a title that should go well with his new position at Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. The school’s motto — “Enter to learn. Leave to serve” — will afford him plenty of opportunities to explain, but more importantly to live out, the concept of Christian service, he said.
“I’m here to be a servant to the families, to the students and to the faculty,” Schambari said during a recent telephone interview.
Schambari has been selected as the new president for Topeka’s only Catholic high school. He will begin his new duties on July 1. Currently, he serves as the president of Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, Washington, just northeast of Seattle. Hayden’s board of trustees made the announcement on Dec. 21.
In high school administration, Schambari said, there’s no such thing as a daily routine. Any given day might find him talking to donors, participating in community engagement activities, reviewing budgets, looking over contracts, sitting in meetings with faculty and staff, or standing on the sidelines of an athletic event.
Yet, Schambari said the one thing he tries to keep constant is his collaborative approach.
“I like to be engaged. I like to be visible. I like to walk around and talk with my team,” he said, adding that many people equate a president’s role with that of a boss. He’d much rather think of himself as the school’s servant-in-chief, one who needs to serve others while helping them secure the resources needed to fulfill the school’s ministry.
“I’m here to serve them, and I take that very seriously,” said Schambari, adding that service should permeate the essence of all Catholic schools.
“I have a passion for campus ministry. I have a passion for service. Those are two areas that I want to make sure I support. Those are two areas in which a Catholic school differentiates itself from public schools and even private schools. Catholic schools have a strong emphasis on caring for people and on Christian service.”
Over the years, Schambari has made eight different service or mission-type trips. When he takes over at Hayden, he said he’d encourage students to participate in service trips outside the United States with their parishes or the school, as it provides students the opportunity to look beyond themselves.
“Unless kids have an opportunity to go outside the United States and see poverty the way the rest of the world sees poverty, they don’t have a true understanding of what it means to be poor,” said Schambari. “It gives them an opportunity to experience Jesus’ message.”
On his most recent service trip to Guatemala, one sponsored by his current school, he said he saw change occur in the students’ minds and hearts right before his eyes.
“We were among the poorest of the poor,” said Schambari.
The people had dirt floors in their homes and were offering the students bowls of soup — food that would probably feed their families for two weeks.
The people, he said, were apologizing to his students that they didn’t have more to share.
“You could see the lightbulbs going off [in the kids’ heads.]. . . . Here in the United States we get so insulated [from all of that].”
But how do you get students to want to go on a service trip in the first place?
For Schambari, the answer is simple. You teach kids the basics, starting with the fact that they are known and loved by God.
“Once a young person knows he or she has value, that opens them up to so much,” he explained. “There’s a cultural element that tells them the opposite and that you should do whatever you want as long as it feels good.”
Instead, he continued, “You tell them, ‘You have great worth’ but, at the same time, you also tell them that with that great worth comes responsibility.”
Schambari often asks students, “Now that you know you matter, what are you going to do about it?”
And that’s a question he answered in his own life more than 15 years ago.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Schambari attended Catholic schools from third grade through high school. His first job was at a hotel where he said he learned a valuable skill — that of being able to talk with people from different backgrounds.
Simply put, not everyone who travels to Las Vegas is necessarily interested in noble pursuits or passions. Yet, being able to talk with people is essential to living the Christian message, he said, as you have to be able to meet people where they’re at and go from there.
After college, Schambari was following the same career path as his mother and other family members — that of banking.
“I was good at it and I enjoyed it,” he said, “but it just didn’t feed me.”
After volunteering at a retreat for a local Catholic high school, he found himself taking a huge pay cut and embarking on a new career path. He’s never looked back, not even once.
Since then, he’s served as president of two regional Catholic high schools, and he said the regional aspect of Hayden appealed to both him and his wife Sally. Another aspect of Hayden that appeals to him is the incredible market value of a Catholic education here in the Midwest.
“That’s a story that we can really share, as well as the return on that investment that comes with the sacrifice,” he said.
Schambari also said he looks forward to learning more about the Catholic community in Topeka and what the school has already done to tap into the legacy of alumni that exists within the community.
“Any investment in that area is going to be a wise one,” he said, adding that investing in the community helps the school maintain its flavor and authenticity.
Most importantly, though, Schambari said he’s excited to help students discover who they are in Christ Jesus, as they are the future of the church. One of his favorite Scripture passages comes from the First Letter to Timothy and reads: “Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity” (4:12).
Schambari said he often shares that passage with young people because it shows that, despite their youth, they can lead the way.
“I tell them,” he added, “‘You can lead the way. You don’t have to wait. You can lead the way now. In fact, we really need you to lead the way now.’”