It was Graduation Day June 20 at St. Francis-St. Vincent Home for Children in Bensalem, although the nine young men and one young lady graduating received their high school diplomas from a variety of institutions.
Mohamad Dahir, Mostofe Awale, Asad Gilreem, Derrick Finkley and Mason Rainey are all graduates of Bensalem High School; Cameron Thomas from Mastery Charter School; Elishah Byers from De La Salle Vocational School; Sharieff Jones, Carroll Burton and Raina Neris all from the St. Francis-St. Vincent’s in-house program, St. Katharine Drexel School.
All are residents at St. Francis-St. Vincent, a residential facility for at-risk teens that operates under the auspices of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services. Most of the graduates intend to continue their education through college programs.
Also on hand to encourage them was a small group of graduates of the former St. Francis or St. Vincent schools, most probably older than the grandparents of the current grads.
“Our graduates are a special group,” said St. Francis-St.Vincent administrator James Logan. “They have achieved this milestone of high school graduation in many cases overcoming many obstacles that stood in their way. We celebrate their strength, perseverance and resilience on completing their goal. We are proud of each and every one of them.”
St. Francis-St. Vincent, which at this time has approximately 108 teens –mostly boys — is located on the grounds of the former St. Francis Vocational School, just one of the string of residential child care facilities which in past generations sheltered thousands of children, often from birth until high school graduation.
Today’s residents tend to be of much shorter duration; it could be weeks or months but sometimes a few years because current social thinking favors family care or foster care, with institutional care a last resort.
“Today’s graduates have made an investment; not a financial investment, an investment in self-worth,” said St. Francs-St. Joseph principal Terrence Hudson at the graduation ceremony. “Many of our students have struggled in their personal lives, however they have shown us their strength to give back to us. They have shown us they are guaranteed their survival.”
Turning to the graduates, he said, “I salute you and I thank you.”
Mason Rainey, one of the grads, may be typical in the challenges he has faced and overcome in his young life.
Born in North Philadelphia, he was still in grade school when his family fell apart and he and his two siblings were placed in foster care.
“It was hard because I wasn’t with my Mom and Dad,” he remembers. It got worse when the three children were split up.
“I was completely alone and I was in rebellion. I didn’t listen to anything,” Mason said.
In 2011 he was taken out of foster care and sent to St. Francis for a time and then back to foster care.
“It didn’t work out, and I came back to St. Francis,” he said. “I grew up, I learned responsibility. I’m more aware financially and the discipline helped me. The staff became my family. Just because you don’t share blood with someone doesn’t mean you aren’t family.”
One of his favorite staff mentors was Trinitarian Sister Bernadine Schmalhofer who took the boys who wished to go to Sunday Mass. Mason isn’t Catholic, but no matter, he went too.
“I learned the Apostles Creed and all the other prayers,” he said. “She helped me get the peace I was missing. She helped me grow up. Miss Collette and Miss Pat were great too.”
He also enjoyed Bensalem High, especially singing in the choir where he was first tenor.
Now Mason is set to sign up for the U.S. Navy. “I like travel,” he said, “and my Dad, who is dead, was a Marine. He served for 20 years and was a first sergeant.”
Although college is not in his immediate plans, Mason strives high. “I want to go into the medics and someday become a doctor,” he said.
It is not an impossible dream.
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