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Sister teachers connect students through ongoing friendship

Fourth-grade students at Ascension Catholic School in Overland Park  visited Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kansas, on Dec. 13 for an Advent celebration. Here, James Ryan McGillivary helps Dalarys Cortez with a craft. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s been 14 years, but Cathy Hair and Janet Schlake still get choked up talking about a partnership they created to bring two schools in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas together.

“It’s the highlight of my year every year,” said Hair. “I get very emotional.”

Hair, a fourth-grade teacher at Ascension School in Overland Park, and Schlake, a former kindergarten teacher at Our Lady of Unity School, are sisters who wanted their students to be connected in some way, too.

So for the past 14 years, Ascension’s fourth-graders have visited Our Lady of Unity’s kindergarten, first- and second- grade classes, as they did on Dec. 13 this year. In the spring, Our Lady of Unity students visit their friends at Ascension.

During these visits, the students work on crafts with a designated buddy, play outside at recess and participate in a prayer service.

“I think this is the greatest way to teach them,” said Hair.

“It’s about making new friends and realizing they don’t live that far away from you,” she said. “They have so much in common. They’re both Catholic, they’re hard-working kids and their families are hard- working families.”

Camila Monzon- Renas shows her friends Oliva Owens and Rachel Seger how old she is. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

Although Schlake retired from teaching a few years ago, she is still involved in Our Lady of Unity and the ongoing friendship between the two schools, which she believes has brought her relationship with Hair full circle.

“I used to push [my sister] on the swing,” said Schlake, who is nine years older than Hair. “Now, they bought us a playground, they bought us the swings. I’d button her coat and I’d pray with her. They’ve had coat drives for us.

“It’s become where Ascension is like the big sister to this school,” she added.

Our Lady of Unity has a twinning relationship with St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, but they receive additional support through the connection between the two sisters.

“Ascension is such a generous community,” said Hair, “and I really want to teach my fourth-graders the importance of giving back.”

Alexa Boos and Mia Arellano work on a craft together. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

Hair fills a bulletin board with pictures of the students at Our Lady of Unity, and her students pray for them regularly. She also talks to the kids about Jesus’ commandment to love one another and the importance of getting out of the classroom to show others that love.

Schlake is inspired by her  sister’s efforts to help her students “practice what they preach,” she said.

“When I taught kindergarten, my kids loved it,” said Schlake. “But the Ascension kids come away touched.”

A memory the sisters will never forget is when one of Hair’s fourth-grade students discovered her buddy at Our Lady of Unity wanted an American Girl doll for Christmas, “but she knew Santa Claus could never bring her that,” said Hair.

The fourth-grader saved up her own money and bought her friend a doll, then presented it to her privately without telling her classmates.

“That girl is a senior in high school now,” said Hair. ”It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen a fourth-grader do.”

When the students got together on Dec. 13, they laughed and played as if they had been friends for years.

One of the students’ favorite activities together is recess. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

“It’s become such a tradition at Ascension that they know coming into fourth grade this is one of the highlights,” said Hair.

The students at Our Lady of Unity are “so loving and welcoming,” she said. “I do feel like my kids get the most out of it.”

Hair hopes the ongoing relationship will inspire her students to continue giving back throughout their lives.

“You can talk to them and talk to them,” she said. “But when they actually do something, they see what Jesus’ message is.

“It’s the best way to teach them.”

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in September 2015. After moving to Denver in 2018, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven a year and a half later and continues to write and manage the website and social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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