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St. Augustine High School of New Orleans gets financial boost from Twitter foundation during coronavirus

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Kenneth St. Charles, president of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, talks to drum majors in the school's "Marching 100" band in this 2016 file photo. St. Charles officials said they felt overwhelmed by a $1.5 million donation from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's #StartSmall initiative, the largest single gift in the school's 69-year history. (CNS photo/Frank J. Methe, Clarion Herald)

NEW ORLEANS — Kenneth St. Charles, president of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, has toiled in fundraising and development for nearly a quarter century.

But nothing in his previous experience of dealing with foundations and philanthropists prepared him for this: a $1.5 million windfall, electronically wired to the school this summer from a foundation established by the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, with virtually no paperwork involved.

But there was nothing “virtual” about it. This was real cash.

“This was unique,” St. Charles said in mid-June, still overwhelmed by the $1.5 million gift from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall initiative, the largest single gift ever made to the historically African American boys school founded in 1951 by the New Orleans Archdiocese and the Josephites.

How the donation came about is even more intriguing. On Jan. 13, the day Louisiana State University played Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in New Orleans, T.J. Adeshola, head of sports partnerships at Twitter, visited the Catholic high school in part because of his friendship with Aulston Taylor, chief development officer at St. Augustine.

“Fundraising is all about relationships, and we were very fortunate, very blessed that the gentleman came to see the school,” St. Charles said.

As an accomplished executive, Adeshola was asked to address two classes of seniors about how his education had prepared him for business success.

“We try to share with our students successes and career-type information from alumni visitors and people from the community at large,” St. Charles said. “Our purpose was to provide an example of a person who was a leader in his profession. He’s African American, and we try to expose our kids to those visitors and leaders who can provide words of encouragement, words of wisdom.

“He came to the school early in the morning and walked around, and I think he became impressed with the kids and certainly understood the mission of the school. A few months later, we got a phone call, and we were invited to speak to the head of their foundation.”

That phone call lasted only 20 minutes, and the school was subsequently asked to submit a short wish list of priority items, along with a brief narrative explaining why these were important.

“The next thing we know, we get a phone call, and they said they were sending a gift,” St. Charles said. “There was no formal request. There was no proposal. So, in that regard, it was unique.

“I think I’m safe in saying that once you enter St. Augustine, there’s a special feeling. This is a spiritual place. This is a special place. Our kids are delightful to interact with, and the next thing you know, he just felt some type of motivation that this school was deserving of this level of support.”

The $1.5 million can be used by the school to support its most critical priorities. St. Charles said the school’s board of directors will discuss “our most pressing needs,” which include making improvements to its academic programs and curriculum as well as upgrades to facilities, classrooms and technology.

The school also hopes to financially assist families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Charles still is working through the timetable for using the unexpected windfall.

“There is no immediate timetable because this was truly, truly a surprise to us,” St. Charles told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans’ archdiocesan newspaper. “This was not budgeted, it was not expected, it was not hoped for. I was not necessarily skeptical, but being in this business for so long, I was just not expecting the immediacy and the urgency that the donor felt, which we greatly appreciate.”

St. Charles said St. Augustine has a national reputation for excellence and producing leaders. Beyond the $1.5 million donation, the school raised $512,000 from more than 1,000 alumni and other donors during its “Give Purple” day June 16.

“People are just enamored by the mission of the school, and they want to help,” St. Charles said. “We have a lot of people who really love and support the school. We know how important St. Augustine is locally, but now that we are being recognized on a national level by an entity like Twitter does send a message about what we are here for. In the Catholic tradition, we are here to make an impact on the young men who attend, and that’s what this gift will allow us to do.”

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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.