Brownell teaching, helping in New Orleans

52_cassieSpecial to the I-O by Cassie Brownell, CHS alumni

Growing up in Conrad, I was always impressed by the great kindness and generosity of the people in town and the surrounding area. It seemed that no matter what the cause or call to action, a huge outpouring of support would come forth from the community – be it an individual or family in need or something to better the greater community.  Even in difficult times or following a poor harvest, members of the Conrad community have always found a way to give back and to give more than one could ever expect.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned as a child in Conrad – to give and to give with your whole heart. Since graduating from Conrad High School in 2004, I have tried to live out this lesson as I explored the world beyond Pondera County’s borders. As a student at Marquette University, I discovered my own desire to dedicate my time and energy to empowering the working-class poor and homeless populations of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My desire to serve took me far beyond the boundaries of the United States as I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to volunteer in two schools during my junior year at Marquette. The experiences I had in these two schools left me feeling troubled, seeing for the first time the vast injustices in education from one place, such as Conrad, to another.

Not yet feeling settled with the state of the world and the state of education, I sought out an opportunity to continue to serve those in greatest need. I settled on a program through the University of Notre Dame called the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a two-year service through teaching program offering college graduates the opportunity to serve as full-time teachers in under-resourced Catholic schools across the southern United States. Volunteers not only gain the experience of teaching, but also earn a Master of Education from Notre Dame while becoming immersed in their new community.

In August of 2008, I moved to New Orleans, Louisiana as a part of the ACE program, having never set foot in the city before. After arriving, I was shocked to see the lingering affects of Hurricane Katrina on both the land and the people. Teaching second grade, I found many of my students fearing heavy rains and winds. As Hurricane Gustav approached in the fall of 2008, I experienced first hand the fear of leaving your home and everything you own behind as you look to an uncertain future.

Through the course of my first two years of teaching, I have heard stories of triumphant returns to new homes as families move out of trailers and hotel rooms. I have been a part of the exciting journey of the Saints to the Super Bowl and the introduction of New Orleans’ own princess in the Disney movie the Princess and the Frog.

I also continue to see the huge disparities between white and black and rich and poor that exists so clearly in my own classroom. A great number of the students in my classroom have limited resources available to them at home. I have found myself handing out books and school supplies for the students to use because so few have them available to them at home. This year I’ve had students try to sneak school supplies into their book sacks, miss school because they had no more socks to wear, and cry during every morning’s lessons because their stomachs are filled with only the pangs of hunger. Each day I do all I can to provide my students with the knowledge that they are smart enough, that they are good enough, and that they are capable of achieving their highest goals. But often times, this is not enough. And so, I have chosen to do more.

This month, I will participate in a Half Ironman Event as a relay team member. I will swim 1.4 miles to raise money for a non-profit organization founded by a friend of mine from Marquette who moved to New Orleans just months after Katrina hit. Contemplatives in Action (CIA) assist in the thoughtful recovery of this city. One of their most popular projects is the Thoughtful Response Teams, a partnership with out-of town volunteer groups who would like to experience New Orleans at the intersection of direct service and retreat experience. I have worked directly with CIA and have seen firsthand the service they provide to both volunteers and the greater community.

Conrad taught me to be a person for others and to step beyond what was expected, to always work for something more. I write today to request your help with achieving my goal – to raise $703 (to match the 70.3 miles of the race) for CIA and the people of New Orleans. Any parties interested in donating to these efforts can donate online at either www.racingforneworleans.org or   http://enduringhope.wordpress.com/ (including my name in the memo line) or can mail checks payable to Contemplatives in Action to: Cassie Brownell, 4333 Morris Place, Jefferson, La. 70121.

All donations are tax-deductable and are greatly appreciated.


To learn more about the Alliance for Catholic Education, visit http://ace.nd.edu/. To learn more about Contemplatives in Action, visit http://www.contemplativesinaction.org/.