Magazine article Momentum

Brother Edmund Rice Summer Institute Helps Students Make a Difference beyond the School Walls

Magazine article Momentum

Brother Edmund Rice Summer Institute Helps Students Make a Difference beyond the School Walls

Article excerpt

The BERSI Program is designed to challenge and inspire teachers and students to become co-learners through well-orchestrated experiential learning opportunities. Over the years we have taken a decidedly cross-cultural approach, setting up opportunities where students and teachers transcend sociological and economic divides in such environs as Harlem, Peru, Puerto Rico, Chicago and El Salvador. James P. Keane, Ph.D., assistant principal, Catholic Memorial High School.

Just over 200 years ago, in 1800, Edmund Ignatius Rice gave up a successful business career to devote his life to God and to help youngsters living in poverty in Waterford, Ireland, rise above their station to do great things and change the world. Some of his pupils made their vows to the newly forming Christian Brothers, but others went on to become businessmen, academics and responsible leaders in building a better Ireland as it faced the growing pains of the 19th century.

So when we at Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, came to name a student travel institute explicitly after him-we called it the Brother Edmund Rice Summer Institute (BERSI)-we had a high standard of success to which we wanted to measure up. Our institute, inspired by Edmund's work, aimed to empower the youth we teach during the winter to get out and make a difference in the summer, to take themselves and their vocations more seriously than ever.

Colleagues of mine spend their school vacations or summers on Cape Cod or teaching at a community college. For me, BERSI has given me both work and vacation and provided what are now some of the highlights of my teaching career. My students and I attended a briefing on Iraq in 2004 at the United Nations. We sat down in Washington, D.C., with Jon Sawyer, the former White House bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to talk about President Bush. We coordinated a high school debate between our students and Salvadoran students about the war in Iraq (El Salvador was then part of the "coalition of the willing" and many Salvadoran teens wondered why); later that day we hiked on an active volcano. We walked with Malachy McCourt along the wharfs of the Hudson River as he explained how he arrived from Ireland on a steamship more than 50 years ago. A program like BERSI, I've come to realize, is what good Catholic schools need to do for their teachers as well as their students.

It occurred to me that we had finally created something meaningful when a student came to me in my classroom and asked how he could go about fundraising his way to come on our program's newest mission trip to Puerto Rico. He wanted to go, but he didn't have the money. A week later, another student asked me the same question. Two in one week. Then a group of students walked in the next day and asked if they could put together a planning committee to start brainstorming ideas for next year's trips.

BERSI is Born

One measure of an institution, of course, is the number of other initiatives it spawns. We know this so well in Boston, living under the shadow of Harvard. You can't drive 10 city blocks in the Boston region without seeing that name, whether it applies to the school itself or any of its constituent institutions. Dr. James Keane, the assistant principal at Catholic Memorial School, recognized as much when he asked me, back in 2001, to devise a summer camp-or program-or institute, where our students could develop their talents and our teachers could show off their skills. From that idea was born our Edmund Rice Summer Institute, which has since grown in name as well as stature and size to become the Blessed Edmund Rice Solidarity Initiative, or "BERSI" for short.

Five years later, the results of our one- to two-week immersion programs in culture, arts and the mission of the Christian Brothers are impressive. "Thanks to BERSI," Keane said, "our curriculum has been reinvigorated with a strong emphasis on experiential learning. …

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