Bronx native returns to hometown to serve with joy

Bronx native returns to hometown to serve with joy

Most of us would be hard-pressed to discover a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity within a couple blocks of where we grew up, but that’s exactly what happened to Stephanie Ortiz. 

That opportunity? Receiving top-notch training to become a teacher while helping to make her community a better place. 

After all, it can take as much, if not more, courage to return to our roots as it does to head somewhere new. Yet returning to her roots was what Ortiz felt she was being called to do. After attending elementary, middle, and high school within a mile of her childhood home in the Bronx, New York, Ortiz attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Graduating from college, and a prestigious college out of state at that, put her in the minority among her classmates back home in the Bronx—many of whom seek but struggle to find a path out of the area for their entire lives. But just like many of the heroic characters in our most beloved stories who answer the “call to adventure” and eventually return home with new gifts, once Ortiz found that path out, she knew she needed to come back right away and share what she had learned from her experiences with her own community.

In Ortiz’s opinion, too many students from where she grew up did not have the educational opportunities she had, and they deserve those opportunities. She also realized that her neighbors and peers were missing something else from their educational experiences, a key element she attributes to her own success: the chance to develop and deepen their faith.

“Our community is lacking in the faith department,” says Ortiz. “Churches are closing. People aren’t attending church. And families are ignorant of the Catholic faith of their ancestors.” 

That brings us to the solution Ortiz found in Seton Teaching Fellows, a unique program that, through a team of talented and passionate college graduates like Ortiz, are fueling the engine of education innovation in the Bronx and beyond. 

“Being able to teach here and lead catechism classes,” she explains, “is more than just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is service. It’s touching the lives of others.” 

Living in an intentional Catholic community and supported by a modest stipend, Fellows make an immediate and lasting contribution to the students they interact with daily—students growing up on the same couple of blocks where Ortiz grew up. Fellows teach at Brilla during the day, working side-by-side with veteran teachers and participating in regular professional development. After school, they lead a robust faith formation program, teaching catechism and enrichment classes (art, music, gym, etc.) to the students who attend El Camino.

The Fellows’ impact on the faith lives of children in the community has been astounding. Since the program began in 2013, 123 children have been baptized because of their experience with El Camino. This impact radiates to their parents and other family members, many of whom have returned to or have strengthened their involvement in the Catholic Church. 

“It’s important that children are being baptized and formed by people who live and understand the faith,” Ortiz said. 

She claims one of the secrets behind the success of the Seton Teaching Fellows program is that at the same time the Fellows are helping the community grow in the Catholic faith, they are also experiencing growth in their own faith. 

“I’ve been in Catholic school my whole life and there are things that I didn’t learn until joining Seton Teaching Fellows,” Ortiz said. “Living in community with other Fellows really deepened my own faith.”

The kids help as well.

“[Teaching] second- and third-grade catechism,” Ortiz said, “not only did I know that they learned a lot, but I know they taught me too.”

In fact, Ortiz grew so much during her time with Seton Teaching Fellows that she decided to stay on with Brilla Schools Network and serves as a Kindergarten teacher today. Her desire to continue contributing to her home community is a major motivation, but she also cites the incredible mentorship she received as a novice teacher.

“I have had so much support from the people around me,” she concludes. “We had coaches helping us with curriculum and classroom management. I never felt alone. I always had someone to go to when I had questions. Their feedback on my lessons and the openness strengthened my teaching.”

We see it with Frodo and Gandalf, Luke and Obi Wan—every hero who goes on a transformative journey must find a mentor. At Seton Education Partners, new teachers and Fellows alike are blessed to have an entire community of them.