A Move of Faith

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How Brillante Academy Kept a Family Connected Across the Miles

What are the chances that a seven-year-old will convince his mother to enroll him and his siblings in a school over 1,500 miles away?

Slim-to-none. But not for Hector Villapando. One summer trip from his home in North Dakota to visit his grandmother in Texas was enough for Hector to persuade his family that Brillante Academy was where he was meant to be.

How did he do it? Providential meetings and a lot of time with his abuela, Maria Vega.

At the beginning of his visit to the Rio Grande Valley, Hector and his siblings joined their grandmother for a talk hosted by the Spanish-speaking family ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Aaron Brenner, Brillante’s founding superintendent, gave a talk to the group of about 40 parishioners.

“I would never have met Hector and his family had I not gone to a parish that wasn’t mine… I honestly didn’t think much would come out of the talk,” Mr. Brenner explains, given that the parish is located farther from the neighborhoods most Brillante families come from. In fact, he almost canceled the talk because it had been such a busy week leading up to the opening of Brillante.

Looking back, Mr. Brenner views that parish visit in a providential light.

“Typically, when kids are in the audience, they tend to drift off during a presentation. But you could sense the Villapando children were deeply connected to the talk.”

So when Hector saw Mr. Brenner again, but this time at St. Joseph the Worker, Mr. Brenner’s home parish thirty minutes away, Hector had to approach him. Aaron immediately noticed that Hector was wearing a scapular outside his shirt—so Mr. Brenner showed Hector that he wore a scapular, too.

“Can I still come to Brillante?” Hector asked with a shy smile.

Mr. Brenner and Hector talked more about the school, and within days Hector had persuaded his family to let him and his siblings remain in Texas so they could attend Brillante during the inaugural 2023-2024 school year. 

The family registered that same week.

Hector being greeted by a Fellow on his first day of school.

“They were early believers in the model,” says Mr. Brenner. “They’re anchors and pillars in the school…Our second-grade class is completely full, with 30 kids on the waitlist. That wouldn’t have happened without early believers like the boys and their grandma.”

Monica Villapando, the children’s mother, needed to remain in North Dakota for a time before she could relocate to Texas as well, so her children attending Brillante and living with their grandmother would mean months of separation.

“It was a move of faith for all of us,” says Ms. Villapando.

And yet, this loving mother believes the challenges have been worth it.

“They honor God with their sacrifice. We’re all in it together as a family,” she says. “We know the blessings will be returned seven times from the Lord. But we’re also looking forward to being together again.”

Fortunately, that reunion should happen soon, as Ms. Villapando plans to move to Texas this fall. She says the stories of how much her children love Brillante “keep me going.”

Hector, Raudel, and Monica were the first Brillante students to enroll in El Camino.

El Camino—an optional after-school enrichment program that provides scholars with Catholic faith formation, activity classes and sports, and homework help—was one of the unique features and primary reasons the Villapando family was drawn to Brillante. 

The family is devoutly Catholic, but Ms. Vega says tuition costs make Catholic schools “out of their reach since they are a family of three siblings.”

Enrolling in Brillante and El Camino has allowed Hector, Raudel, and Monica to grow in character and academics during the school day while honoring how central faith is to their family through the after-school program.

Raudel (center) being awarded “Most Virtuous Person” in El Camino.

And just how important is that faith? 

Picture this: It’s the first day of El Camino, and when Hector and Raudel walked into Megan Rubalcaba’s classroom, the Seton Teaching Fellow immediately thought, “This is my worst nightmare”… but not because she was worried that the boys would be trouble.

“I didn’t know if I’d have anything to teach these kids,” Ms. Rubalcaba says of the two boys who wore beautiful rosaries and scapulars and created countless drawings based on the Bible. “They were so wise, so full of personality” that she wondered what she’d have to offer them as a first-year teacher. 

In the end, they taught and learned from each other.

Ms. Rubalcaba has also developed a relationship with the children’s grandmother after inviting the family to attend Mass with the Seton Teaching Fellows. Although English is not her first language, Ms. Vega often brings her grandchildren to this English Mass because of their bond with the Fellows. Ms.Vega has also invited STFs into her home and prepared them meals. 

Raudel, Hector and Monica with Megan Rebalcaba (center) and the rest of the first Brillante Academy Seton Teaching Fellows.

Ms. Rubalcaba says her reciprocal relationship with the Villapando family is “more like a friendship” than just an education partnership. 

And when it comes to education, the Villapando children are flourishing. Hector, in particular, is reading at an advanced level, and when Ms. Rubalcaba discovered the books in his classroom weren’t quite meeting his needs, she decided to change that. 

“It started when a PreK-4 teacher came to first grade one day and dropped off a big bag of books,” says Ms. Rubalcaba. This gave her the idea to start a classroom library. She visited local libraries to ask for donations and was overjoyed to receive several boxes of picture books, chapter books, and books written in Spanish.

Then Ms. Rubalcaba realized they needed a system for checking these books out to students. “So I bought a little pink scanner off of Amazon. I scanned all of the books that we had into this free online library. And then, I realized that the kids were going through the books so quickly; we needed more books.” 

Thanks to donations from multiple public libraries in the region, along with gifts from parents and teachers, Brillante scholars now have access to a school library of over 200 books.

And what an impact this classroom library has made already. Not only are first-graders more excited about learning to read, but by checking out books with “due dates,” they’re learning about personal responsibility and why they should cherish books.

“I’d say the library is about 70% of what our children talk to me about,” says Ms. Rubalcaba. “It gives them a sense of ownership…they have a say in the classroom.”

This excitement around reading has also contributed to every first-grade student demonstrating improvement on their MAP testing scores.

“Every student has gained at least one point, so 100% of the class has improved their reading scores, which absolutely floors me,” says Ms. Rubalcaba.

Hector Villapando is one of those students, and he proudly claims learning to read has been his favorite thing about attending Brillante Academy.

Raudel is the more soft-spoken brother, and he has a deep passion for art. He and Hector are often seen carrying sketch pads and colored pencils around the school. 

“They’re just incredible…We have his [Raudel’s] artwork at home, and we need to get it framed because it’s so beautiful,” Ms. Rubalcaba explains. “He’ll do the image of Divine Mercy as well as the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Sacred Heart…Everything he [Raudel] makes is a gift. He always gives it away to someone—his classmates or his teachers.”

One of Raudel’s art that he gifted to the Fellows.

Art has not only encouraged the boys to grow in their faith, it has also taught them about virtue.

Ms. Rubalcaba recounts a story of a classroom coloring project where students had to work together to create a large picture out of several smaller pictures (like a puzzle). When Hector noticed that some of his classmates’ contributions were not colored as neatly as he would have liked, he got a little frustrated and left the group to read instead. 

“I’m not going to do it if it’s going to be messy,” he told Ms. Rubalcaba when she asked him what was wrong.

The Virtue of the Week happened to be “initiative,” so Ms. Rubalcaba responded, “But we’re not really showing initiative when we give up like that.” She watched as Hector thoughtfully considered her words, set his book down, and went back to being a leader in the group.

The next day when the Virtue of the Week came up again, she overheard Hector say to a classmate: “I’m not going to give up anymore because Ms. Ruby says that I’m not showing initiative if I do.”

Hector posing with one of his El Camino activities.

Hearing this brought Ms. Rubalcaba to tears at the back of the classroom. “You don’t really know if they’re listening. That was a huge teaching moment for me.”

Hector’s honesty is one of the character traits Ms. Rubalcaba admires most about him. “He’s incredibly honest about what he understands and what he doesn’t understand… he has such a heart for the Lord as well.”

Ms. Rubalcaba describes how Hector often makes connections to his faith, no matter what topic they’re studying in class. For example, during social studies when scholars were learning about Spanish conquistadors, Hector pointed out how all the sails of their ships had a cross on them. 

“He’s very curious,” she says, and the insights Hector gains throughout the school day carry over into the kinds of questions he asks during El Camino. Ms. Rubalcaba claims she has also grown in virtue because of Hector.

The value of friendship is another important life lesson Hector experienced this year.

Thiago and Hector (bottom right) posing for some Christmas fun!

When another first-grade scholar named Thiago joined El Camino in the middle of the year after transferring to Brillante from another school, he was immediately welcomed by Hector and the other students. Thiago had experienced bullying at his previous school, but Ms. Rubalcaba says she “cannot imagine someone not wanting to be his friend.” 

Because at Brillante, everyone wants to be Thiago’s friend.

He and Hector are actually best friends, which is so sweet,” says Ms. Rubalcaba. “Thiago has truly transformed the whole energy of the school.”

Hector (holding Nancy Drew) posing with his classmates, including Thiago (right) with the new library!

Monica, who is in pre-K and is the youngest Villapando sibling, has also made a big impact on the school community with her contagious joy.

“She’s so precious. My goodness,” says Ms. Rubalcaba. “She wears a little veil to Mass and already knows the Our Father and Hail Mary.”

Monica’s mother says it’s been wonderful to hear the feedback on her, especially since Monica is so young and the separation has been harder for her.

“[Despite] how little she is, she knows a lot of prayers and participates [in El Camino]… I’m really thankful for that…it gives her a bigger purpose,” says Ms. Villapando. “She’s really involved, and I can see that she loves it. It’s very heartfelt.”

Monica receiving an award at the end-of-year Brillante assembly.

This heart for faith is also cultivated at home, where Ms. Vega frequently takes her grandchildren to Mass and often prays a daily rosary with them.

The faith formation even continues on the drives home from school. Monica often initiates these car conversations, which cover their daily lessons, the saints they’re learning about in El Camino, and how much Monica loves her teachers and learning about her guardian angel.

Ms. Vega says El Camino has been the best thing that could have happened to them.

Hector earned the St. Michael Award for Courage in El Camino.

And the reason it happened at all? Because a mother and grandmother believed passing on eternal gifts to their children was worth the temporary sacrifice.

Because a school leader listened to an inner prompting to give a talk at a far-away parish, even though his logical mind wasn’t expecting it to bear much fruit.

And because a little boy took the initiative to pursue the kind of education he and his siblings deserved.

Moves of faith, indeed.