CHILDS, Md. — Tucked away in Childs, Md., the students, faculty and staff at Mount Aviat Academy usually perform their work in relative peace and quiet.
But things got a little bit more hectic and loud on Jan. 16, when the school community celebrated being named a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.
The day included two hours of service projects in the morning, pizza for lunch and a gathering in the gymnasium for an afternoon of fun activities, which included the teachers and several Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales dancing.
Sister John Elizabeth Cal-laghan, the longtime principal, said Mount Aviat is one of 50 nonpublic schools to earn Blue Ribbon status in 2014. The designation means a great deal to the Mount Aviat community.
“It’s reaffirming and confirming that people have done a wonderful job — instructors, students, support parents. It’s very encouraging that what we’ve been working very hard to do is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education,” Sister John Elizabeth said. “By the same token, I think it’s a great motivator to continue to stay committed, in this case, to Catholic education and to continue to excel and to extend the program.
“Today is about celebrating that achievement.”
In the morning, the 240 students rotated among six service projects: shoe donations to Africa (675 pairs); valentines for veterans; decorating bookmarks for the elderly and religious in the diocese; making blankets for Birthright and the homeless; making rosaries for religious in the diocese and for the March for Life; and connecting a prayer chain.
They did so wearing blue t-shirts that read “I glow with school spirit at MAA,” which were funded by school families with businesses, Sister John Elizabeth said.
One parent who was spending his day off at Mount Aviat was Lt. Col. William Stegemerten of the Delaware Air National Guard. He was helping with the valentines for vets, naturally, and spent time after the students returned to their classrooms picking up leftover paper, yarn and other materials. He has four children at Mount Aviat from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade and was thrilled to find the school after moving to the area in 2008.
“It’s a very holy, peaceful environment where we can express our faith,” he said.
Stegemerten said he was at St. John the Baptist Church on Main Street in Newark in 2008 praying about where to send his children to school when he met a woman whose grandchildren had attended Mount Aviat. He and his wife visited and liked what they saw.
“We felt it’s a place where kids can be kids” in a holy environment, he said.
Sister John Elizabeth said the school draws students from about 10 parishes, which gives Mount Aviat a wide reach despite its rural location. The school has strengthened its core curriculum in recent years, particularly in science, mathematics and technology.
There are 10 Oblate sisters in residence on the campus, eight of whom work at the school full- or part-time. The retired sisters also give of their time, as do Oblate priests, who live down the street and come to Mount Aviat to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
“Our religious vocation is part of the education here,” Sister John Elizabeth said.
After lunch, but before the activities commenced, the students heard from local singer Mario Padovani, who went to St. Matthew’s School in Wilmington. Padovani was born with Poland syndrome, missing the pectoral muscles on one side of his chest. One of the manifestations is that one hand is typically smaller than the other, and there is often webbing on that hand.
“They call it a birth defect. I call it a blessing,” Padovani said. “I don’t think that God makes anything by mistake.”
Padovani, a graduate of St. Mark’s High School, played the piano and guitar for the students. On piano, he performed “The Lord’s Prayer,” while he played an original song on the guitar.
He told the students it’s OK to ask for help, as he did to learn how to tie his shoes, read music and play instruments. He also encouraged them to be kind and loving, as the Gospels tell us to be, when they encounter someone different from them. That comes with a bonus.
“It gives people an opportunity to be kind to you,” he said.