Community effort brings renewed life to school

COLUMBIA — Part of the mission statement of St. Martin de Porres School reads, “St. Martin is actively changing from a mission community to a community on a mission.”

With all the activity, renovations and improvements at the school, no one would doubt the mission and the enthusiasm of everyone involved with it.

One of the most visible improvements at St. Martin was the recent renovation of the library. Because of a generous grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation and the help of many volunteers, librarian LJubica Arceneaux, was able to transform the space into a cozy, colorful place to read and meet.

This was the realization of a dream principal Sandra Leatherwood has had since she first arrived at St. Martin 26 years ago. She wanted a library that would be the center of the school and it has quickly become the center of the community with a variety of activities taking place.

Help for the renovation came from parents, families, and friends. Alfred Lindsay, an architect and St. Martin de Porres parishioner, drew up the plans. Lywanna Glymph, a Columbia College student and alumnus, drew a border of a beautiful garden of flowers for the room. Leatherwood led the way for staff participation by picking up a paintbrush and adding a lovely tree on the library wall, revealing her own artistic flair.

The effort is continual, however. With more than 3,000 books donated by the Happy Bookseller, parents, and students from Allen University and Cardinal Newman High School, have been assisting with cataloging the tomes. McKinsey Gearheart, a third-grader, recalled the old library and loved the new colors. Her fellow student Kenelia Orner was more impressed with the additional books.

“There is so much we can learn here,” she said.

Because of all the improvements, the school library that was once little more than a disorganized storage room, functions today as a community meeting place. Once a month, the school hosts Books and Breakfast where parents are fed and given lessons on child development by First Step instructors. The books for the course are donated by the Happy Bookseller and given to the parents. Everything is free and it has been bringing in a steady flow of parents.

Although blessed with the grant money and community support, St. Martin also endured a couple of tragedies in 2002; the first was the disappearance and death of second-grade teacher Christine Sanders’ two daughters, Dawn and Candi.

“We had no one else to turn to but God. We had to have trust in his will and believe that he doesn’t make mistakes,” said Leatherwood.

When the young women’s bodies were found a few months later and their death was determined to be an accident, there was great sadness, but closure.

“God used this tragedy to bring out the most in each of us. We received support from throughout the diocese and within our immediate community. Every school in the diocese was praying for us, and we need all of it, especially the Sanders family,” said the principal.

The visible sign of prayers took the form of yellow ribbons on the school’s fence that were later replaced with white ones when the girls bodies were discovered.

The next problem was the low enrollment for the sixth grade for the 2002-2003 school year. The lack of six-graders ended up creating an unexpected opportunity. The vacant classroom was converted into a science lab, and with the help of Richland District 1, a wonderful science program is in place with training and resources for the teachers.

Another source of pride for the school is the choir directed by Eddy Peeples. The much sought after group began the year singing for the annual diocesan faculty meeting in October. It also sang at the anniversary of the SCSA, at Allen University and for several Providence Hospital events last year. Few people can walk away from the children’s singing without feeling joy and a renewed hope for the future.

For more than 68 years, St. Martin de Porres School has been a means of evangelization especially for African-Americans in the downtown area of Columbia. This has been achieved through education and outreach, weekly Masses and spirited homilies new pastor, Father Paul Williams. With 90 percent of the school body presently non-Catholic, and some living below the poverty line, the school is a mission with a mission and people of all faiths are committed to helping with it.