JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They are dreamers who became doers. Unlikely heroes to students who grow up in unrelenting poverty and violence.
In August, two nuns traveled from Philadelphia to Jacksonville to celebrate the end of a journey: A woman named Helene Neville had just completed a 3,000-mile run from California to Atlantic Beach to raise money for their school.
Why? We traveled to Philadelphia to show you.
It's Monday morning, the beginning of a new year at a small Catholic school. The girls arrive in plaid skirts and yellow oxfords, the boys in navy pants and ties.
They are exceptional students: One hundred percent of these K through eighth-graders will graduate from high school, and almost as many will go on to college.
If you've ever attended Catholic school, the philosophy of St. Francis de Sales School's development directors, Sister Jeannette and Sister Constance, won't surprise you:
"Shape up or ship out."
But that's probably the only predictable thing about them.
They run the school in the middle of the second highest homicide district in Philadelphia. The poverty here is extreme. Homes are without windows, power or water, and some are condemned. Gang violence is a way of life.
"We've been robbed here a bunch of times. We chase them. One time I was dragged down three flights of stairs and I'm screaming 'Constance, help me," said Sister Jeannette.
"(I said) Get out of here, the cops are on their way and he dropped it and went. You can be a tiger when you're protecting your turf," said Sister Constance.
They also protect the 500 students who attend the school - without help from the diocese. When the diocese wanted to close de Sales for financial reasons, the two took finance classes and learned how to raise money.
"We decided then that de Sales is not for sale," they said in unison.
They have dreams for the children here. They know someone needs to. Sister Jeannette recalled studying Martin Luther King. The children were asked to write their own 'I have a dream' speech.
"When you think about elementary school students," said Sister Jeannette, "you think, 'I want to be president' or 'I want to be a professional basketball player', but instead it's 'I have a dream that I'll be able to go to the store without being shot', or 'I have a dream that I won't have to cover the windows so someone doesn't shoot into my home.'"
In a recent 48-hour period, there were 10 homicides in the school's west Philly neighborhood.
"For me to see someone murdered in front of my eyes, it's something I can never explain and yet so many of the kids have experienced things like that, and their parents have been murdered and their siblings," she said.
The stories are plentiful and heartbreaking. Yet for every story of tragedy, there is one where the human spirit takes flight.
Sister Jeannette held up a picture of a young boy.
"His dad is on death row and when he was in eighth-grade he said 'I'm going to make my dad proud of me'. He graduated from eighth-grade with the highest general average and he's finishing his last year now at Villanova on a full scholarship," she said. "And that is what we want to see. Breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education and giving them a new way.
The new way begins with a wall with pictures of students nominated by their peers as peacemakers.
"They really can't fight with words because it could get them killed in their neighborhoods. So we work on non-violence all the time," Sister Jeannette said.
In 1992, the sisters were asked to speak at yet another funeral for a former student and decided they had seen enough.
"We said, 'we're reacting. We have to be proactive'," said Sister Constance. "Then we had the biggest challenge. My grand niece was murdered. We had to go through the entire trial and still say we were for peace, not vengeance. Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is."
The Peace Wall was born, and with it, a now-nationally recognized program that promotes and rewards non-violence.
"For instance, this happened before Columbine," said Sister Jeannette. "And when Columbine happened we got so many phone calls: 'Give us your book.' Well, we don't have a book. It's a way of life."
The sisters are fond of saying the wall is not for angels, instead it promotes respect for self and each other.
"A young boy came to school badly beaten, and I said, 'what happened?' He said 'someone tried to steal my bike.'"
He actually had been beaten as a penalty for leaving a gang. "You're beaten up double the time to get out of the gang...," said Sister Jeannette.
But he was put on the Peace Wall. "One girl, very pious or righteous or whatever, said, 'well, he curses'. Then somebody else said, 'he used to curse every other word and now he only curses once in a paragraph.' So he got onto the wall."
"That's improvement. That's what we're looking for."
Josh Well, now a successful high school student with plans for college and law school, admits he was no angel. In sixth-grade, he was headed for expulsion.
"I saw one kid get expelled and then one of my good buddies, he got expelled and I thought 'oh my gosh, they're serious'," Well said.
He got the message. "I would talk a little less. I would be extra kind," he said.
And he made it to the Peace Wall. "I made it a couple of times," he said.
And perhaps even more important than the wall is the Peace Room.
"Dear Sister, I need to talk to you about a problem. It's getting too big and things are getting out of hand. We need to go to the Peace Room," Sister Jeannette read from a letter.
"It just goes to show you that they really don't want to fight," she said.
The room is the ultimate demilitarized zone. Students in conflict are given an escape from fighting, encouraged to talk about differences - and no teachers are allowed.
"It lets you resolve conflicts that you realize do not matter if you just put it aside," says JiChang Ni, who came to de Sales in the second-grade when his family immigrated from China.
He is one of many immigrants here; dozens are refugees from wars, first in Combodia, now in Africa. When Ni arrived, he didn't speak English. But now, he is one of six de Sales recipients of the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship.
Ni is in college and working toward a Phd., but he grew up right down the street. "The rougher (the neighborhood) is, the more you learn," he said.
In this neighborhood, he said, small issues can lead to big problems. A fight over football brought him to the Peace Room.
"We came in here and spent 25 minutes. In the end, we realized there's really nothing to argue about. It's just a game of football. We're not NFL stars," he said. "So we put that aside and we are classmates again."
But in too many cases, that anger turns to gunfire.
"I was sitting in my bedroom and I hear boom, boom , boom," said Vanessa Holloway, whose two sons were shot in a drive-by outside her home.
"You never know," she said. "My son said they had an argument the night before and the guy came back the next day and retaliated."
Holloway, who now works at de Sales, said she wishes the whole city had a Peace Room.
"Try to make their children resolve issues instead of just trying to brush it under the table," she said. "Because brushing it under the table doesn't work, even when we're grown, as with the incident with my sons."
And that's the goal. Get to them early and often. Teach them a new way so that at the end of the day when they leave, they have the skills to stay safe.
Or as the sisters say, the tools to dream dreams.
If you'd like to know more about St. Francis De Sales School, you can visit its website www.desalesschool.net
By the way, Helene Neville will be off on another cross country run in the spring. She'll run from Canada to Mexico this time, in support of de Sales.
First Coast News