By: Kate Lovett, Class of 2025 and and Ellie Newton, Class of 2025
St. Mark’s High School
To be a family means to support each other. That is something that grandmother Mary Ellen Little knows very well. After many years of fostering, Mary Ellen recently became a full-time guardian of her granddaughter, Leilani.
Leilani’s mother has struggled for many years with substance abuse and cannot care for her in the ways her grandmother can. This led to Mary Ellen stepping up to support her daughter and granddaughter in different ways.
Mary Ellen has always had a strong foundation in her faith and the Catholic community. Growing up in New Jersey, her father was a deacon, and their family was very active in the Catholic church. From a young age, she saw the benefits of Catholic education. The idea that everyone is created in God’s image is the message that she wanted to resonate with her two daughters. This is one of the main reasons she enrolled them both in Catholic grammar school until high school when they decided to transition to public school. Years later, she is now making the same effort for her granddaughter to attend Catholic school.
Leilani’s mother has struggled with substance abuse for eleven years. It has had monumental impacts on their family, putting Mary Ellen in a much different position financially than when her daughters were young. Her daughter went through rehab but did not have the means to take care of Leilani anymore. Her father spent the first three years of her life in jail, also in no position to care for her. Mary Ellen struggled to gain legal guardianship over her granddaughter and has recently been granted that important role.
She has also had to take a step back from her daughter’s life; the addiction is something that they cannot overcome as a family any longer. According to Mary Ellen, her main priority now is to provide Leilani with the best possible chances to take a different path than the one her mother followed.
Another challenge to overcome in the family’s lives is Achondroplasia Dwarfism. Mary Ellen, her two daughters, and Leilani all have Achondroplasia Dwarfism. This is something that they know how to deal with, but according to Mary Ellen, “Kids can be mean.” Because of this, she believes that the Catholic school environment would be a better place for Leilani than public schooling.
Mary Ellen believes that in a Catholic classroom, the teacher can talk with the class about why Leilani is smaller than the other students and how she is just as capable as them. This idea that God made them all different for a reason may not be taught in public school and would most likely result in more bullying for Leilani.
Catholic schools are family-oriented, creating a feeling of community. The lessons and memories learned in these school environments are worth so much to many families like Mary Ellen’s. However, overcoming obstacles in achieving the goal of a Catholic education is often challenging. The financial challenges that Catholic school tuition can put on some families is enough to force them into public school.
Mary Ellen was approaching retirement, but now, as Leilani’s guardian, she’s not sure it will happen soon. She works additional hours and puts Leilani’s education as a main priority. Mary Ellen is thankful for a tuition assistance grant through the Diocese of Wilmington to assist in making a Catholic education a reality for Leilani. Tuition assistance grants like the one Mary Ellen received help many families, but the need is much higher than the dollars available for scholarships.
“As we go through the applications for tuition assistance, we see many stories of hardship mixed with a strong desire for Catholic education. We encounter many grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Donors to the “Share in the Spirit” campaign accomplish a helping hand to many families. However, the need is much more,” said Sheila McGirl, director of development for the Diocese of Wilmington. “We are grateful for the willingness of people like Mary Ellen to tell their story and share the importance of and the impact of Catholic education and assisting our families.”
No matter how vulnerable, Mary Ellen believes it is crucial to put your story out there because someone, somehow, will always be able to relate to it. Though Leilani hasn’t and will not have a traditional upbringing, the Catholic education she will receive will certainly help. Leilani will know her grandmother cares for her and loves her deeply. She will learn that God made her unique, which wasn’t a mistake. When she’s older, Leilani will learn about the struggles that faced her mom and how much God helped and will continue to help her through them. Leilani will gain a second family from her parish that will always support and accept her.