Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Linda Reeves - The Florida Catholic Palm Beach
Photography: LINDA REEVES | FC
LAUDERDALE LAKES | St. Helen School shaped Juan Orozco in his formative years, and he has fond memories of classes, schoolmates and teachers.
“My teachers and this school were a major influence on my life,” said Orozco, part of the 2005 graduating class, who was making a visit to his alma mater as the 50-year-old St. Helen School was preparing for a jubilee Mass of thanksgiving this Friday, Nov. 10 at 5 p.m., with Archbishop Thomas Wenski presiding.
“Here everyone was like a family. The teachers cared about us. I learned respect, courtesy and Christian values. I want my children to have a Christian education like I had at St. Helen,” said Orozco, 32, a parishioner of St. Gregory in Plantation who is getting married this year and looking forward to starting a family.
St. Helen School is sandwiched between a RaceTrac gas station and storefronts on busy Oakland Park Boulevard in Lauderdale Lakes, a four-square-mile city which incorporated in 1961.
As the city drastically changed from a rural community to a booming suburban area with a diverse population, the faces in the classrooms at St. Helen changed. Once a predominantly white institution, St. Helen now boasts a school body of children from various cultures and ethnicities – mainly Haitian but also African American, Jamaican, Asian, and Hispanic.
What hasn’t changed over the years is the school’s steadfast mission of molding youngsters academically as well as spiritually, planting seeds of wisdom and faith in their minds and their hearts and nurturing them to blossom into the persons God intended them to be.
“I always felt cared for when I was at St. Helen,” said Orozco, now a successful commercial realtor. “It was the best feeling. Mr. Pabustan was my homeroom teacher. He taught me how to work hard. He taught me how to play chess.”
That would be Arlee Pabustan, who is back at the school but no longer as a homeroom teacher. He took over as principal at the start of this academic year, after serving at various schools in the Archdiocese of Miami for 20 years. He left St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale to take on the leadership role at St. Helen, where he taught middle school for 10 years and has special connections since his son, now 22, graduated from there.
“When I was leaving St. Thomas Aquinas, I told people that I was going to St. Helen. People asked, ‘Where is that?’” Pabustan said. “It is my dream to put St. Helen School on the map of the archdiocese. St. Helen needs a progressive leader in terms of thinking. Starting next year, you will know St. Helen.”
Improvements are happening already. The building’s interior was spruced up, repaired and painted, and classrooms have new chairs and student desks. The school also received a $200,000 grant from Florida’s Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools, geared toward supporting private and independent schools whose operations were disrupted by the COVID-19 shut-down.
This year, the school had no trouble filling its enrollment, which now stands at 244 students in pre-K4 to eighth grade: one classroom per grade, with classes kept to about 25 students. The school has 15 teachers.
“This is a scholarship school,” said Pabustan, explaining that many of the children come from low-income households and receive tuition assistance through scholarships programs such as Step Up.
“The kids are really smart and eager to learn,” said Marie Massillon, who teaches second grade and is in her first year at the school. “The school community is really close-knit. The teachers and staff work well together.”
St. Helen offers STEAM education, an approach to learning that interconnects science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. The idea behind the program is to challenge students to think critically and creatively.
David Upko, STEAM director, also directs technology and helped implement the technology infrastructure that has been put in place over the last eight years.
Eighth-grade teacher Beverly Seymour joined the school in 2015 and taught for three years before leaving to pursue other opportunities. She returned after the pandemic in 2021.
“St. Helen has a great atmosphere,” she said. “We all get along with each other. The teachers share information about what works and what doesn’t. It is like a family. We are growing as a team.”
A group of women religious from Vietnam, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation, add a special touch to the school environment, a rare presence among the lay teachers in many Catholic schools today. Father Lucien Pierre, St. Helen’s pastor since 2015, also makes frequent visits to the classrooms.
Prayer is woven into the day, along with life lessons on manners, respect, kindness, love and compassion. Parents and grandparents are invited to join students and teachers at the school Mass on Fridays.
St. Helen Parish was established in 1968, and the school opened five years later. It was the first school to open in the archdiocese after a 10-year hiatus, so it got quite the attention from the very start.
But three months after it opened, the church burned down. While it was rebuilt, the church and school shared facilities, with the parish celebrating Masses in the cafeteria. That tragedy turned out to be a blessing because the space-sharing became the glue that bonded the church and school, a bond that remains after five decades.
“The parishioners help support us,” said Seymour. “Some of the older parishioners who are retired volunteer at the school. We are a family.”
The school made headlines when former President Gerald Ford, a golfer, came to town in the late 1970s to participate in a golfing match. Valerie Fanning, founding school principal at the time, just happened to swing an invitation for the children to visit the president at the Hollywood Beach Hotel where he was staying. The entire school loaded up in vehicles driven by parents and caravanned to the hotel for a 15-minute chat with Ford.
When Lillian Carter, mother of former President Jimmy Carter, visited the area in 1979 to break ground for St. John’s Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the school again managed to participate, as the facility is located next door to the school.
As part of its golden anniversary celebrations this year, the school organized a career day and invited alumni to attend. One of those who came was Daryl Campbell, 37, a member of Florida’s House of Representatives and mental health therapist who went on to study at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville and Barry University in Miami.
During Campbell’s entertaining and inspiring talk, he told the students about his experiences at St. Helen.
“I can’t believe he came to the school,” said Pabustan.
He is hoping for a good turnout at the jubilee celebration this weekend. Invitations have been extended to religious, families of students and alumni, parishioners, alumni and supporters.
As for the future, he said he aims to come up with new ideas to move the school forward, while keeping the school and church connection alive.
“We are working on developing a new website,” he said. “We are also trying to get the parents more involved. Every month, we plan to have a family Mass with a family day and picnic after Mass.”
His plans recall an old saying that could very well be his motto: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
IF YOU GO
- What: St. Helen School 50th anniversary Mass of thanksgiving
- When: Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, 5 p.m.
- Celebrant: Archbishop Thomas Wenski
- Location: St. Helen Church, 3033 N.W. 33 Ave., Lauderdale Lakes.
- Information at: 954-731-7314.