by Brendan Sample
For former Chestnut Hill resident Judy Stavisky, co-author of “Do It Better!: How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone’s Expectations,” which came out in July, was an experience 25 years in the making.
That is how long she has known Sisters Constance Touey and Jeannette Lucey, the main authors of the book, which tells the stories of several international students who attended St. Francis de Sales School and credit the school’s healing methods in helping them to overcome adversity.
From the time they met in 1984, Touey and Lucey worked to nurture a safe and welcoming environment at SFDS for immigrant children adjusting to a new environment. Students came in from all over the world, including countries such as Costa Rica, Ireland, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines and many more nations in between.
Touey and Lucey felt a sense of responsibility to help make these students feel welcome, especially considering that many of their families were fleeing harsh environments back home. Some of the sisters’ ideas included posting students’ pictures in the central hall to give them the courage not to fight, or by creating a Peace Room for students to settle disagreements on their own without adult intervention or by resorting to violence.
“The low-tech but high-touch ideas were extremely effective and became so well known that people from all over the country came to observe the school’s techniques,” Stavisky said.
Stavisky was vice president of health services at Keystone Mercy Health Plan when she met Touey and Lucey. Her work involved insuring low-income families, and the plan at the time focused on prioritizing violence prevention efforts in three ZIP codes, including that of SFDS.
“This little K-8th grade school in West Philly was one of a handful of community programs that received funding for their unique approach to preventing violence,” Stavisky recalled.
Stavisky kept in touch with Touey and Lucey over the years, and when she reached out five years ago to ask if they had any big projects they were working on, they told her about the beginnings of a new book. Touey and Lucey put together the first draft, complete with original artwork, poems and other narrative pieces written by various students. Stavisky reviewed and edited the draft, and Terrence McNally, the book’s other co-author, reworked everything into the final product. She also worked to track down and interview several of the SFDS graduates who attended the school decades ago and got their then-current perspectives.
With the current national debate over immigrants still raging on, Stavisky hopes that this book will inspire readers with messages of love instead of hate.
“This is a book about building bridges not walls,” Stavisky explained. “Bridges between American-born children and their foreign-born classmates; bridges between immigrants and their new homeland; bridges between students who face a staggering array of hurts and their pathways to success.
“We wanted to show, through the stories of both native and foreign-born de Sales students, that the balm of friendship, unconditional love and encouragement can help repair children who feel broken.”
In the eight-plus months since its release, the book has already seen plenty of positive reception, including from some of the former members of the SFDS community.
“We are delighted that so many people have responded positively to the book,” Stavisky said . “One of the unintended consequences of our publication is that many former students and teachers have reached out to the nuns, some of whom have been out of touch with the sisters for three or four decades.”
Though she now lives in Wyncote and only lived in Chestnut Hill from 1984-1985, Stavisky still has plenty of fond memories from her time living in the neighborhood.
“We relished the access to a Main Street community and, after all these years, continue to return to Chestnut Hill for our shopping and errands,” Stavisky recalled. “It was particularly difficult to move away from Kilians!”
Looking ahead, Stavisky will continue working on her new book about Amish women. She hopes to present a balanced image of the mothers and daughters who have welcomed her into their lives, not unlike the way that Touey and Lucey have done not just for their students, but also for her.
“Growing up in a Jewish home, I knew very little about the life of religious sisters, and over time we have become close friends,” Stavisky said. “Like the multinational children who attended de Sales, the sisters and I could not be more different on the surface, but we have learned over time that we have many more similarities than differences. And we laugh quite a bit together.”
“Do It Better!: How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone’s Expectations” is available for purchase on Amazon.
Brendan Sample can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-248-8819.