Outside St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke schools in Cleveland, signs sprang up this summer declaring that they are “more than classrooms–a community.” That’s not just a slogan. It is the lived truth at the beating heart of our schools—and no two people have fostered those communities quite like Yvonne Williamson and Jackie Dillard.
To understand the unique value of Catholic schools is to understand what women like Yvonne and Jackie bring to the children, families, and coworkers around them. And for those of us striving to make an impact, Yvonne and Jackie point to how we can move beyond doing good work to live out a calling.
Yvonne Williamson admits to being 72 years old, and to managing some health issues. So where is she in the middle of a pandemic? Masked up and helping students in the front office at St. Thomas Aquinas, where she has been school secretary since 1996. Why? “I love my job, I love the Lord, I love the kids, and I don’t feel right when I’m not here,” she says.
Jackie Dillard came to work in the office at Archbishop Lyke School in 1979. She has seen the institution through the mergers of ten schools, changes in campus configuration, and now through its transition to the Partnership network. This summer, when that transition meant renovations and some extra organizational work to complete, both she and principal Nancy Lynch came in on weekends. “Everybody thought I was crazy, no vacation—but it has to be done, and it gives me energy.” Plus, she adds, “the parents can’t wait to see what is going to happen” as the Partnership becomes an intrinsic part of the school.
As school office administrators, they help with everything from parent calls to bee stings to payroll to cleaning up spills. But it isn’t just an admirable work ethic these women bring to their schools. Both move beyond completing tasks to doing ministry.
Jackie explains that Archbishop Lyke School is “like a family, in that if you don’t like someone, you still love them and care about what happens to them—we have cried together, laughed together—if I get that close to you, then I feel more like family to you than a secretary at a school.” Anyone who has ever worked in a reception capacity knows that each buzz of the doorbell and ring of the phone presents another problem to solve. Yet neither Jackie nor Yvonne see the people who approach them or the work they do in those terms. “I love our parents,” Jackie repeatedly declares.
Similarly, Yvonne explains, “Sometimes come people come in mad. And I say, ‘can you come over here and pray with me?’ You never know what people go through.” It is that faith and empathy that amplifies her impact and motivates her. Ask her how she keeps going and she’ll tell you: “Prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer.”
Both she and Jackie see the children they work with illuminated by the light of faith as well. “The children are just adorable,” Yvonne says. “This week, an eighth grader came into the office and told me to have a blessed day. That’s what I always say to them—and someone always says it graduation,” a huge smile lighting up her eyes above her face mask.
Theirs is the kind of faith and love that believes in the future of the children they serve enough to deliver difficult truths in love. Nancy Lynch, Archbishop Lyke principal, explains that Jackie is currently running a “bootcamp” for Kindergarteners who are new to the school’s expectations. “Each morning, Jackie takes the ones who need more attention and coaches them—‘this is how we walk…this is how we sit.’”
Likewise, Yvonne isn’t shy about stepping in to help educate children on things that may fall outside a typical school curriculum. She relates the story of an eighth-grade boy and girl one year who were “sticking with each other—” engaging in a pattern of actions suggesting to Yvonne that they were more interested in each other than academics. “I pulled them aside. ‘I love you,’ I told them. ‘Don’t do that.’”
Together, they illustrate that clear, high standards of behavior are just one component of Catholic school culture. As Yvonne says, “if a child is having some problems, we try to nip it in the bud,” and she elaborates: “we try to see what’s wrong. Maybe there’s something we can do—” and then goes on to explain that those efforts might involve solving a problem the family has, not just expecting the child to do better. One student this fall thought she was the school nurse, Yvonne had handed out so many Band-aids; one might also be forgiven for thinking she is part of the school counseling staff.
The faith of these women has been tempered in the real-world challenges of Catholic school closures. Jackie, for instance, places great significance on Archbishop Lyke’s school mascot—the Phoenix—given its long history of rebirths. And when Yvonne was told that St. Thomas Aquinas was closing last year, she responded with a daring faith both in God and in the future of the institution: “I said ‘we’re not closing,’ and two days later I found out we weren’t.
Yvonne’s parish—St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima—has a Wisdom Council—a group of active, older parishioners appointed by Pastor Fr. Robert Marva to “take on the role of mentoring, educating, admonishing in love, and leading by example of the members of the larger community.” It should surprise no one that Yvonne, a convert to Catholicism, is on it. “Wisdom Counselor” is about the best way to describe what both women add to their school communities.
Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan nun and scholar well-known for helping elevate the voices of African-American women within the American Catholic Church, once said that “Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle, we’d have a tremendous light.” The lights of Jackie Dillard and Yvonne Williamson have helped these two Catholic elementary schools shine for years. May the ministry each of us does glow as vibrantly.