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'Best Christmas gift ever'

Massive donation lightens load for Columbus High - and its workers

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Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, right, and the high school's president, Thomas Kruczek, throw up the high school's "C" sign after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021.

Photographer: COURTESY

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, right, and the high school's president, Thomas Kruczek, throw up the high school's "C" sign after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021.

MIAMI | Amy Mallafre got two shocks in early December.

First shock: an $18,000 bonus from an entrepreneur and alumnus of Christopher Columbus High School.

Second shock: The alumnus, Marcus Lemonis, was donating millions more for a career guidance center in the name of her late mother, who also taught at Columbus High.

The many-sided gift was part of $10 million for the school from Lemonis. It includes another center to assist disadvantaged students, plus Christmas gifts of $18,000 for all 172 employees — from teachers to administrators to clerks to janitors.

“I was numb,” said Mallafre, in her sixth year teaching English at the Marist Brothers school. “Everybody knows we don’t do this for the money. But this is the best Christmas gift ever.”

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis gets a hug from Irene Culmo's daughters after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021. Part of the money will fund a college preparation center named after their mother and a Columbus teacher who retired last year, Pat Call.

Photographer: COURTESY

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis gets a hug from Irene Culmo's daughters after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021. Part of the money will fund a college preparation center named after their mother and a Columbus teacher who retired last year, Pat Call.

When Lemonis named the new center partly for her mother — Irene Culmo, who taught at Columbus for 37 years — Mallafre burst into tears of joy. “For me, it’s an honor that her memory, her legacy, lives on. Marcus is an incredible human being.”

Pat Call, who retired last school year after 43 years at Columbus, was likewise in shock that day. The new college preparation center was named after her as well.

“It took me totally, totally by surprise,” Call said. “It took me a couple of days to get grounded, but I still feel like I'm walking on Cloud 9. As an educator, you never know whose lives you touch in a positive manner. It’s one of the pleasures of being a teacher.”


ACADEMICS AND RELATIONSHIPS

Dollar signs aside, Lemonis’ multi-level generosity stands as a strong example of the impact a Catholic school — and the relationships it can foster — may make on young minds.

Born in Beirut, Lemonis was brought as an infant to the U.S. and befriended by neighbors and teachers in Miami. After Columbus High, he went on to Marquette University. Lemonis then founded the RV chain Camping World and launched several TV business-oriented shows. Best-known are CNBC’s The Profit and Streets of Dreams.

The Christmastime gift to Columbus employees was part of his Great American Tip-Off campaign, prodding people to give a little extra to hardworking Americans.

“It’s important to recognize school teachers in America,” Lemonis told WSVN-Channel 7. “The fact that this school did what it did for me, to give the largest tip in American history to what I think is the most important service provider in America — that's really what it boils down to.”

Besides the college preparation center, Lemonis announced plans for a specialized center for disadvantaged youths: counseling, tutoring, even food if needed. The school already provides financial aid for 35% of its 1,731 students, totaling nearly $1.8 million annually.

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, right, shares a moment with Billy Desmond, whose family took the young Lemonis under its wing decades ago. Lemonis' $ 10 million donation to the school, announced Dec. 9, 2021, will fund the Desmond Family Success Center, a specialized center that will provide disadvantaged youths with counseling, tutoring, even food if needed.

Photographer: COURTESY

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, right, shares a moment with Billy Desmond, whose family took the young Lemonis under its wing decades ago. Lemonis' $ 10 million donation to the school, announced Dec. 9, 2021, will fund the Desmond Family Success Center, a specialized center that will provide disadvantaged youths with counseling, tutoring, even food if needed.

The new program will be named the Desmond Family Success Center, after a family that took a young Marcus Lemonis under its wing decades ago. As their backyard neighbor, the Desmonds included him in everything, said Billy Desmond.

“Marcus became the third brother in our family,” said Desmond, one of two boys and seven girls. “He called my dad his idol, and he said the love my mom showed him was his road map for success.”

Warm relationships likewise influenced Lemonis’ decision to name the college center for Mallafre’s mother, Irene Culmo. The mother not only taught him but developed a friendship, letting him talk things out whenever he was depressed.

He became a permanent fixture in the Culmo household, always bringing bagels or pastries — one time, a bouquet — whenever he visited. Amy and her older sister “adopted him as a little brother,” Mallafre said.

“My dad adored him,” she added. “He was so proud of him as Marcus got more successful.”

Alumnus Marcus Lemonis, left, and Columbus High School President Thomas Kruczek hold up teams shirts sporting the number 10, in honor of the $ 10 million donation given by Lemonis to his alma mater and announced Dec. 9, 2021. The donation included an ,000 "tip" for all the teachers and staff at the Marist-run high school.

Photographer: COURTESY

Alumnus Marcus Lemonis, left, and Columbus High School President Thomas Kruczek hold up teams shirts sporting the number 10, in honor of the $ 10 million donation given by Lemonis to his alma mater and announced Dec. 9, 2021. The donation included an ,000 "tip" for all the teachers and staff at the Marist-run high school.

Mallafre’s son, Anthony, is a senior at the school and scoping out several colleges who have already accepted him. She said the $18,000 bonus will be a big help for him.


STARTING A RIPPLE EFFECT

For Andrew Harriman, a theology teacher, Lemonis’ gift means a down payment on a new home. He's a single parent who has lived in an apartment for four years.

“Putting money down on a place is kind of hard on a one-teacher income,” said Harriman, an 18-year veteran at Columbus High. “My daughter wants one place we can call home, not keep moving.”

After the holidays, he plans to take his daughter, Abbey, 8, shopping for a new place. “I’ll make her part of the decision. I want her to feel comfortable with the place.”

Billy Desmond said he believed Marcus wanted to “create a ripple effect,” and said he's already seen examples.

“My phone has been nonstop with calls and messages: some friends and family, others not directly connected with the school,” Desmond said. “Maybe friends and neighbors whose kids went to Columbus.”

Harriman, the theology teacher, quoted St. Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist order: “To teach children well, you must first love them and love them all equally.”

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis throws up the high school's "C" sign alongside some current students after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021.

Photographer: COURTESY

Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis throws up the high school's "C" sign alongside some current students after announcing his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021.

“You see this with the brothers here,” Harriman said. “If you need one of them, he’ll make sure to talk to you that day. We’re like that with the kids. And Lemonis is carrying that out as an adult.”

Desmond himself embodies the Marist values taught at Columbus High. His Win the Day Today is a Miami-based charity to promote mental health through advocacy, awareness projects and scholarships.

“The teachers, the coaches, the mentors ... taught me math and science, yes, but more important, values: morality, doing the right thing, growing the fruits of the Spirit. When you practice them, you know they’ve been implanted in you.”

Thomas Kruczek, president of Columbus High, clearly wants to keep the ripples spreading. On Dec. 9, 2021, when Lemonis visited, Kruczek reminded students about the need to “pay it forward”: helping others succeed as they will some day.

“Who knows what impact they're going to have in 20 years?” Kruczek said. “Maybe we’ll see a leader or someone who finds a cure for cancer. We’re planting trees we’re not going to sit under.”

Members of Irene Culmo's family applaud as Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis announces his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021. It includes funds for a center for college and career guidance partly named after their late mother.

Photographer: COURTESY

Members of Irene Culmo's family applaud as Christopher Columbus alumnus and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis announces his $ 10 million donation to his alma mater, Dec. 9, 2021. It includes funds for a center for college and career guidance partly named after their late mother.