Ronnie Polaneczky: One boy's faith, and the miracle of St. Cyril's
AGAINST CRAZY odds, Tommy Geromichalos graduated last night from St. Cyril of Alexandria Elementary School in East Lansdowne. The odds he trumped weren't only those related to his health. Tommy has cystic fibrosis, a disease that kids didn't used to survive past early childhood. But Tommy and his older sister, Samantha - who also has the malady - are thriving.
AGAINST CRAZY odds, Tommy Geromichalos graduated last night from St. Cyril of Alexandria Elementary School in East Lansdowne.
The odds he trumped weren't only those related to his health. Tommy has cystic fibrosis, a disease that kids didn't used to survive past early childhood. But Tommy and his older sister, Samantha - who also has the malady - are thriving.
That would have been reason enough to put a bounce in Tommy's step during the school's jubilant commencement services.
But the real joy was that, thanks to Tommy, his once-doomed school stayed solvent long enough for him to graduate.
Better still, St. Cyril's school looks to be off the Philadelphia Archdiocese's chopping block for at least the next decade. All because of Tommy's faith and the miracle it set into motion.
Readers of this column might recall Tommy's story, which I shared two years ago, when he was a sixth-grader at St. Cyril's.
Because of the seriousness of his illness, Tommy, then 13, was eligible to make a request to Make-a-Wish of Philadelphia and Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Most sick kids ask for things like Eagles tickets, trips to Disney World or - in his sister's case - a chance to meet a celebrity.
But Tommy, in a heartbreaking letter, asked the foundation to help keep St. Cyril's open. Like so many other parish schools in urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, its enrollment had dwindled as the area's Catholic population shifted to wealthier communities.
St. Cyril's, drowning in debt, needed more than $350,000 to stay in operation two more years - which, Tommy wrote, would allow him to graduate from a school that had provided the spiritual guidance that had sustained him through his toughest days.
That's not hype. This is a kid whose illness has turned him toward prayer - for everything.
"He believes God can solve any problem," his mom, Connie, told me in 2006. "He prays every day, before every meal, even if we're at a restaurant. It can be kind of awkward, when you're at Outback Steakhouse and Tommy says, 'Aren't we gonna say grace?' But we go, 'Sure, Tom.' "
Tommy's request, which was far beyond the ability of Make-A-Wish to grant, was leaked to the local press. Its poignancy galvanized his working-class neighborhood, and, within days, the community had raised $27,000 toward making Tommy's wish come true.
That news generated more publicity (including my cover story and subsequent columns in the Daily News), which raised money beyond East Lansdowne. The wondrous cycle repeated so many times, the school was able to stay open for the final two years of Tommy's education.
All told, the community raised more than $400,000 - a staggering figure. But not staggering enough, the parish learned last winter, to keep St. Cyril's open beyond this year.
But then Tommy's story, again, touched the right hearts.
"We looked at what St. Cyril's had been able to accomplish on their own and were so impressed," says Mike O'Neill. "We thought, 'Imagine what they could do with some guidance.' "
O'Neill, president of Preferred Unlimited, a local private-investment firm, is also chairman of Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools (or BLOCS.)
For decades the group has raised scholarship money for Catholic students. Recently, though, BLOCS has established an endowment to help struggling parish schools stabilize their finances long enough for BLOCS to help them begin to grow again.
That means teaching a parish school how to act like a private one: the kind with an elected board, a long-range business plan, marketing and fundraising strategies and an endowment.
BLOCS was looking for a school where they could pilot this new plan when they heard about St. Cyril's. After meeting the staff and learning of Tommy's story, they were hooked enough to help the school get a 10-year plan together. Using St. Cyril's as a model, they want to help other parish schools thrive, too.
The bottom line for St. Cyril's?
It's reopening this fall.
"This has been quite a journey for the entire community," says Father Ed Kearns, St. Cyril's pastor. "There has been a change in the parish. You can feel it. People's faith has been touched. Even the children are more reverent. They see that prayers can be answered and that one person can make a difference."
Make that one extraordinary person, Tommy Geromichalos, a typical kid of atypical faith. *
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