Guardian Angel Society continues to be a godsend

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

It was more than a decade ago when Father Joseph Champlin founded the Guardian Angel Society (GAS) and it’s more than a year since his death in January of 2008. His legacy continues as GAS still serves the students and families at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP) on Syracuse’s north side. The organization keeps Father Champlin’s vision alive with a number of annual fundraising events and the challenging task of keeping GAS in the spotlight. With Father Champlin’s smiling face on banners and brochures, it is easy to remember his gentle nature and his unwavering dedication to “his kids.” While the fundraisers are the meat-and-potatoes of what makes GAS run, it is the memory of Father Champlin that serves as the heart of the organization.

One of the first recipients of the philanthropy of the GAS was Lawrence Benson and his sister Camille. Even when Lawrence was in elementary school at the old Cathedral School before it blended with Our Lady of Pompei, he realized there was something special about his Catholic education.

“The classes were smaller, the atmosphere was there and the teachers were  phenomenal. You had to do your homework. There was no choice,” Lawrence said. “Even as a young child I realized how much attention a kid needs. The teachers used to use our strengths so that we would help each other.”

After graduating from Cathedral School, Lawrence wanted to continue his education at a Catholic school. GAS helped make that possible for him. Lawrence graduated from Christian Brothers Academy and is a 2008 graduate of Notre Dame University. Father Champlin asked Lawrence and his classmate Melanie George to speak at the Guardian Angel Society‘s annual luncheon and Lawrence said they were happy to do it.

“That was the least I could do for that organization,” Lawrence said.

Today, Melanie is a college graduate also and she works in the financial sector in New York City. Lawrence is currently working in New York City at Goldman Sachs and very grateful for the educational opportunities he received.

“Father Champlin was the Guardian Angel Society,” Lawrence said. “He would always talk to us and keep in touch with us. He was the best.”

Camille remembers her time, a few years after her brother’s, at Cathedral with fondness.

“I remember Father Champlin’s Skittles [colorful candies],” Camille said. “He came by our classrooms all the time.”

For Camille, GAS meant incentive to work hard and to realize that if she wanted a Catholic education, she could have one. “Although my parents couldn’t pay all the costs, I knew I could do it. Sister Mary Jane helped us and encouraged us,” Camille said.

She will be a junior at Le Moyne College this fall. “I’ve gone to Catholic schools all my life. I think if I would’ve gone to a public institution even at the college level it would have been too big.”

Lawrence said he hopes to work someday in some capacity with “kids with my type of background so I could help them go to a private school.”

Most of the students attending CAP are in need of financial assistance. It was in the late 1990s when Father Champlin realized, through his collaboration with the school’s then-principal, Sister Mary Jane Wilcox, DC, that most Cathedral students would never graduate from high school. GAS was founded in order to help these students continue their Catholic education, challenging them and inspiring them — showing them the possibilities. With the financial help, many students have gone on to Bishop Ludden, Bishop Grimes and CBA. They have graduated from places like Georgetown, Syracuse University, New York University, Le Moyne, Clarkson and SUNY Brockport.

GAS isn’t the only community-based benefactor of CAP. For many years, the school has utilized mentors from the community to help the students with their academics and to provide them an example of what they might aspire to. Employees from area businesses have spent countless hours working on math problems, in science classes and other areas with the students. Bruce LaGrow just completed his sixth school year of mentoring students. He works at the MONY Federal Credit Union, just across the street from the old Cathedral School building. He explains to the students just how important math skills are in their everyday lives.

“I try to bring it around to them about how it will be practical to them. You will always need to know how to calculate in your head the taxes or interest on something, to subtract a number so you’re not being cheated. Also how to manage their own finances. I bring it down to the sixth grade level,” LaGrow said.

It was just a year or so after his mentoring began that LaGrow decided he could do more to help Father Champlin’s kids. A “hacker” on the golf course, LaGrow had experience organizing golf tournaments and brought the idea of a tournament to Father Champlin and GAS’s development director, Kathy Fedrizzi, neither of whom were golfers. LaGrow convinced them that the one-day event could generate a substantial sum. The 5th Annual Golf Tournament to benefit Father Champlin’s Guardian Angel Society is set for Tuesday, Aug. 11 at the Links at Sunset Ridge in Marcellus. Past tournaments have brought in as much as $12,000.

“We have a lot of repeat golfers because we have such a great time. This year we’ll take a 75 or 80-degree day with sunshine and no wind,” LaGrow said. “I love to play the game.”

There are many people working together year-round to keep GAS going. Currently there are several fundraising events in place, the most popular being February’s Swinging Sweet Cabaret. “It started as a dessert reception with a band. We added pasta stations and an antipasto bar and it has just grown,” Fedrizzi said. “What is nice about this event is that there’s a large dancing community out there and this event opens the door for them. Last year we were up to 500 people at the event. Everybody dances — we even have dance instruction.”

Along with the cabaret, there is the annual Camillus Memorial Day Race. Father Champlin was a runner and participated in the race raising money for GAS each year. The organization is still a part of the event, with runners representing GAS at the race. “That community loved Father Champlin,” Fedrizzi said. Father Champlin was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus for several years and then served down the road at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Warners in his retirement.

This year, another fundraiser has been added — Fishing for Dollars Dash for Cash on Aug. 1 at Onondaga Lake in Liverpool. Participants will fish for the biggest bass possible with hourly weigh-ins offering prizes. A $50 ticket means fishing fun from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., a free cookout after the event and a chance for the hourly monetary prizes ranging from the $1,000 first place to $75 for 10th place. The lucky 11th place winner each hour will receive a $50 gift certificate to Bass Pro Shops. Tickets are available at the Onondaga Lake Park office with a deadline of July 24 at 5 p.m.

GAS fundraising events are always geared toward fun and community. The speaker at this year’s Guardian Angel luncheon will be the new president of Le Moyne College, Dr. Fred Postello.

CAP has a close relationship with Le Moyne which makes this year’s event an appropriate match. Postello is the first lay administrator at the Syracuse Jesuit college.

Principal Chuck LaBarbera said that CAP could not serve the many students it does if it were not for  GAS. “It just wouldn’t be possible,” LaBarbera said.
LaBarbera said about 70 percent of CAP students receive assistance from GAS. And, even more significantly, more than half of the CAP sixth grade students have continued to one of the city’s Catholic junior/senior high schools with the benefit of GAS.

CAP is unique in that its enrollment is made up of many Sudenese students, Vietnamese students, Spanish-speaking students, African American students and Native American students, which speaks to the current global environment.

“Our children represent a diverse population. We have global faces. All our children learn to get along with everyone else. Children do not see colors. That’s really the way the world is today. We wish more adults would do this,” LaBarbera said. “When a new student comes, all the others become that student’s ‘mom and dad.’ They show them around and they help them.”

With the 25 or so mentors helping the students improve their academics, with GAS supporting their desires for a Catholic education, and with Father Champlin undoubtedly still taking care of his kids, CAP students will continue to excel and continue to experience a quality Catholic education.

For more information and to find out how to support Father Champlin’s Guardian Angel Society, call (315) 422-7218.

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