Sister Trzasko finds rewards in children’s successes

BEAUFORT — “I was pretty clear on what I wanted, and that’s what I pursued,” said Sister Mary Trzasko, 67, of her decision to become a religious. Now in her 50th year, the Dominican sister has never looked back.

Influenced by the kindness of the sisters at her elementary school, Sister Trzasko entered the order in Adrian, Mich., right after high school.

“They were a role model. They paid attention to each individual,” she said.

She worked as a teacher in elementary and high schools in Michigan until 1973. Then she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and worked in a neighborhood center where she did community organizing.

“It was certainly a change [from teaching], but I had an opportunity to make a difference,” the sister said.

In 1985, Sister Trzasko moved to Beaufort, where she lives with Dominican Sister Beverly Stark and is a member of St. Peter Church.

She worked at Lowcountry Human Development as a teacher in an alternative school for teenage mothers. During this time she also volunteered at the Department of Disability and Special Needs. There she worked with children of special needs parents or from at-risk families.

One day a child asked Sister Trzasko if she could help one of her friends, a neighbor who wasn’t in the program. That gave the sister an idea.

In the summer of 1995, she founded Thumbs Up, a nonprofit organization for children from disadvantaged homes.

Thumbs Up, a United Way agency, is based out of the Boys and Girls Club, where it has rent-free space. Teachers and counselors provide referrals for students who would benefit from the program.

When the students arrive after school, they have a light meal provided by the American Association of University Women. Then the children do their homework, which includes 30 minutes of reading every day.

“We’re very blessed having a lot of adult volunteers — many retired teachers, social workers, psychologists and high school students who are doing community service,” Sister Trzasko said.

When homework is complete, the students can go out and play or work on one of four computers. If they choose the computer, they spend 15 minutes working on a skill, such as language arts or math. Then they can spend 15 minutes playing games or browsing an approved Web site.

Thumbs Up provides transportation home for the children. This summer the organization purchased a small bus.

There is no fee for the program. Sister Trzasko depends on grants and donations to keep the organization going strong.

The children regularly take field trips and participate in service projects.

“We want them to start giving back to their community,” the sister said.

The program remains active during the summer. Children are picked up every morning. They work on reading and math skills and take part in the reading program at the public library.

“It’s encouraging to see these children excited about doing well, “Sister Trzasko said.