By Dermot Connolly
Graduating seniors at Stagg High School who win scholarships are traditionally celebrated with a dinner at the school in Palos Hills. But this year, with all the students at home, the celebration was brought to them.
The pupil-personnel services team of guidance counselors organized a “scholarship caravan” of several dozen vehicles that visited all 35 scholarship winners at their homes on May 13.
Stops were made throughout Stagg’s coverage area, beginning in Bridgeview, where teachers briefly “whooped it up” outside the houses of seniors Mahmoud Mousa and Ethar Hussein, who received scholarships from the school’s Parent Teacher Organization.
The festive caravan then went on to homes in Palos Hills, Hickory Hills, Worth, Palos Heights, Palos Park and Orland Park, keeping to their tight schedule.
This was the first and only chance the staff had to see students they knew for four years. Since schools closed two months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been commmunicating online.
The celebration began outside the school at 8015 W. 111th St., where masked and gloved staff decorated their vehicles in the school colors and “Charger Pride” signs before heading off at noon.
“We’re trying to think outside the box,’ said guidance counselor Rich Kowalczyk, who spearheaded the effort. “A lot of schools are doing these virtual celebrations, but we wanted to do something different.”
Kowalczyk, who is head of the scholarship planning team, noted that the scholarship dinner had been scheduled for May 6. “That took a lot of organization too, but this was more fun,” he said, noting that Leyden High School District 212, did something similar in the western suburbs a few weeks ago.
“The only issue we had was, after coming up with a route, we found out some of the students would be taking Advanced Placement tests (at home) during the time we were going to pass by. So we broke it into two routes,” he said.
“Our scholarship planning team knew we still wanted to do something in-person for our students to recognize and celebrate their amazing achievement. It was important to us to have our students, families and our Stagg communities feel connected. Everyone in the community was able to participate in something really positive for our students,” said Dr. Kathryn B. Meader, director of the guidance department at Stagg.
“There’s something to say about human contact. To celebrate our students with a fun, uplifting event like our Senior Scholarship Caravan does a lot for the heart and soul.”
Dr. James Gay, superintendent of District 230, joined the caravan halfway through, and representatives of organizations that awarded scholarships participated also.
At the traditional dinner, scholarship winners would have seated with their scholarship providers. Being part of the caravan allowed the representatives to congratulate them along the route.
“This is really cool. The guidance counselors put so much work into it,” said Suaad Rashid of Worth, who won the Mary Ogarek Scholarship. The caravan caused a brief traffic jam on Southwest Highway when it stopped at her home, where she was with her parents, Manal and Mohammad.
Everyone wore masks, but carloads of staff jumped out to greet her and pose for photos.
“It was a strange end to our senior year, but I think we all learned something,” said Rashid, who plans to study chemistry at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “It was a sacrifice but as long as most people remained safe (from the coronavirus), that was worth it.”
Another Worth resident, Karol Para, graduated in three years and won three scholarships–Business Club’s Young Entrepreneur, Charger Pride and Student Council.
The caravan also celebrated the accomplishments of senior Peter Gordan in Palos Park, another three-scholarship winner who graduated a semester early in January. He was wearing a shirt from his new school, Columbia University and waving Stagg colors of blue and orange with his brother, Alex, a sophomore at Stagg, and their mother, Athena, when the caravan rounded their corner. The founder of a nonprofit called Homes4Monarchs, Gordan plans to double-major in sustainable development and economics when he goes to Columbia in New York City.
“It is a lot of fun. It is great to be able to see everyone again,” said Gordan, holding up certificates he was given for the Charger Pride, National Merit and Palos Lions Club scholarships he won.
“I hope to be able to start at Columbia in the fall, but that might be put off, too,” said Gordan.
“I could not be more pleased with the Stagg Scholarship Caravan. Our Guidance Office staff did an amazing job ensuring that our scholarship winners and their families had the opportunity to experience the excitement and recognition they deserved even during these difficult times,” said Stagg Principal Eric Olsen.
“Our students and families were so appreciative of the efforts of our staff and the generosity of the scholarship benefactors. The energy of the caravan rolling through our many Stagg communities left an impression on our scholarship award winners, but also our communities at large. Community members young and old cheered on the caravan as it rolled through the streets, clearly a sign that everyone was ready for some good news and a little fun,” said Olsen.