By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

PHOENIX — Amanda Kolden is well-acquainted with the heartbreaking stories of families who suddenly find themselves unable to pay tuition for their children at St. Jerome Catholic School.

“I’ve had parents come to me in distress. Not in tears, but on the verge of tears. They say, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore. This is a burden on us, and I don’t know what to do. Please help me,’” Kolden said.

“They’re desperate to make sure their kids stay in a Catholic school because, for a lot of them, that’s all they’ve ever known.”

Funds raised during Night of Hope, the annual fall event that provides emergency tuition assistance for students in Catholic schools, has helped thousands of families keep their children in Catholic schools despite difficult circumstances .

As administrative assistant to Rodney Wilhelm, the principal of St. Jerome Catholic School, Kolden knows many such families who are struggling.

“We had a parent diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, and I think she’s on her fifth or sixth surgery to try to help. She had two daughters here last year,” Kolden said. “I know it was a giant relief for her to not have to decide if she’s paying tuition or if she’s paying medical bills.”

From a father of one family dealing with a brain tumor to another family with a student fighting cancer, the stark reality of health and employment crises can make parents fear they won’t be able to continue their children’s Catholic education.

“Night of Hope is an excellent, unexpected help, and it really does fall when it’s supposed to. It’s a sign from God that they’re meant to be where they’re supposed to be because this comes into play for them,” Kolden said.

Michelle Hernandez, director of finance at St. Mary’s High School, would agree.

Parents who lost their jobs, were laid off, or who were hit hard by Covid were among St. Mary’s High School families who applied for emergency tuition assistance from Night of Hope. On average, between three and five of the school’s families are helped each year by Night of Hope funding, also known as Catholic School Support 365.

In spite of all the challenges, parents deeply desire for their children to continue their Catholic educations. Tanya Bartlett, principal of St. Mary’s High School, said it’s because the education a child receives in a Catholic school isn’t just for today.

“It impacts a student’s entire life, the community, the family, and the Church,” Bartlett said. “Everywhere they go, they carry the experience of their Catholic education with them, and it will inform everything that they do.

“And that’s what parents want: for students to know God, know their faith, and live it out in their family.”

A St. Gregory’s family can relate. The mother herself graduated from the school and wanted very much for her daughters to follow suit. She didn’t need financial assistance to pay their tuition — until she was diagnosed with cancer.

“The mother’s illness was so severe she had to quit her job and feared the children would have to move schools. To remove students from a school they loved during a family crisis was unimaginable,” said Margaret Welfelt, assistant principal of St. Gregory’s Catholic School.

“The Night of Hope scholarship gave this family much-needed aid at such a critical time. Funds from this program also made one part of this unbearable situation a little less stressful.”

Tragically, the mother did not survive the bout with cancer, Welfelt said, but the family “continues to be grateful for the love and support received during such a difficult time. The students remain with teachers and friends who will continue to support them through their Catholic education and beyond.”

And although many families apply for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or tuition tax credits to secure funding for Catholic school tuition, that doesn’t mean disaster won’t happen. Job loss, a devastating medical diagnosis and other sudden changes in a family’s circumstances can lead to the inability to pay tuition and other costs at Catholic elementary and high schools.

That’s why organizers of this year’s Night of Hope are counting on the generosity of donors. As during the last two years, Night of Hope will be a virtual event again this year and takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3. There is no cost for the event, but registration is required.

Register for Night of Hope