Powerful Stories of Redemption Shared at Annual Graduates Luncheon

“Mercy Home gave me the confidence and faith to live another day. You know how the phoenix rises from the ashes? That was me. Mercy Home, along with a team of advocates, literally helped me rise again…and stay risen.”

-Marcelo, Mercy Home graduate keynote speaker

There is no Mercy Home event quite like the Graduates’ Luncheon, hosted by the Leader Council. The 17th annual celebration featured the inspirational stories of our young people, raised support for education, and demonstrated how our generous donors make a difference in the lives of our kids.

The Graduates Luncheon is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of all our graduates. After being announced by Chyna, our 51 graduates processed through the ballroom and took the stage, all while receiving a standing ovation from over 800 of our coworkers and guests. After a welcome from emcee and Board of Regents member Jim Williams, high school graduate Justise shared a little bit about her time at Mercy Home. Before coming to our Home, she struggled to find stable housing. While she watched others graduate high school, she fell behind.

“During this time in my life, I was hopeless,” she said. “But then a miracle happened. I was introduced to Mercy Home, where I found the support I needed in a safe environment.”

“During this time in my life, I was hopeless,” she said. “But then a miracle happened. I was introduced to Mercy Home, where I found the support I needed in a safe environment.”

After announcing that she was graduating as number 11 in her class, Justise introduced Fr. Scott Donahue by saying, “I look forward to accomplishing my next set of goals. And the man I’d like to welcome to the stage made this all possible. Someone who believed in me, so I could believe in myself.”

Fr. Scott echoed the theme of belief by remarking about the things he believes.

“I do believe I believe in possibility. I believe in encouragement. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope, and its presence in the 50-plus graduates here today.”

He then shared an anecdote about the time the day’s featured youth speaker, Marcelo, referred to him as his father to a visiting board member. “Do you realize how that makes one feel?” Fr. Scott said.

Fr. Scott thanked all of our guests for being at the luncheon and gave a special thank you to Leader Council Chair Marcy Twardak and Co-Chair Emily Cole, and all the members of the Leader Council. He also thanked the companies who sponsored the event, which included the presenting sponsor AT&T, premier sponsor Blue Cross Shield of Illinois, media sponsors WGN-TV, WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM, and the Tribune Publishing, among other companies, and all of the coworkers who help put belief into action for our kids. Fr. Scott concluded by telling them, “Together we will continue to provide these young people with the necessary tools and support they need to build their futures.”

After our guests enjoyed lunch, the full program began with a video from presenting sponsor AT&T that featured its Believe Chicago initiative and a special message from AT&T Illinois President and Mercy Home Board of Regents member Eileen Mitchell. Jim Williams announced that the company created a new award at Mercy Home honoring a 47-year AT&T employee and Mercy Home Board of Regents member, Bill Gainer, who passed away earlier this year. The award will be called the Bill Gainer Spirit of Service Award, presented by AT&T, and the winner will be announced later this month.

Williams also shared the winner of another award that honors the founder of the Leader Council, Mary Dempsey. The award is given to a young person who exhibits leadership, academic achievement, and perseverance. This year’s award was given to Clemente, who will graduate with his associate degree and begin attending DePaul University this fall.

A video was then shown about one of our former residents, Reggie, who shared the story of how he found stability and success because of his time at our Home. Reggie then took the stage in person to look back at his life’s journey since Mercy Home and his own youth keynote speech at the Graduates Luncheon in 2008.

“It’s hard to believe [it was 11 years ago], but life moves fast when you’re having fun,” he said. “Adventures I never could have imagined. A bachelor’s degree earned. A master’s degree on the horizon. Thirty-eight countries in six continents visited. Three promotions in five years at my job. None of it would be possible were it not for the belief I gained in myself at St. Ignatius, at Emory, and of course, at Mercy Home. Education opened so many doors and awakened me to so many possibilities, and Mercy Home gave me the courage to walk through them.”

Reggie then welcomed our keynote speaker, Alex Kotlowitz, to the stage. Kotlowitz is the author of the national best-seller “There Are No Children Here,” which chronicled the lives of two young boys struggling to grow up amid the violence of a Chicago community in crisis. His most recent book, “An American Summer,” examines the impact of gun violence in one summer of Chicago. One of the people featured throughout the book was our youth speaker, DePaul University graduate Marcelo.

Kotlowitz shared more about his experiences with Marcelo, his own observations around the impact of violence on Chicago communities, and the importance of institutions like Mercy Home to provide support to those affected by community violence. The author said that Mercy Home should serve as a model for others in helping struggling children succeed.

“Mercy in its own quiet, tenacious manner refuses to bow to the forces bearing down on children growing up in neighborhoods and its families that are struggling. Mercy refuses to concede defeat.”

Before introducing Marcelo, he concluded, “Mercy restores our faith in the ability of children to flourish if nurtured, if cared for, if pushed. Mercy restores our faith in the human spirit.”

“Mercy restores our faith in the ability of children to flourish if nurtured, if cared for, if pushed. Mercy restores our faith in the human spirit.”

Marcelo kept the audience enthralled with his story of gang involvement and how Mercy Home helped him to find a better path.

“Mercy Home helped me develop skills to resist the temptation of the streets and understand that education was my way out,” he said.

And even after suffering setbacks, Marcelo gained perspective on what he can and cannot control in life.

“Standing up here feels like winning the lottery,” he said. “But winning the lottery involves luck. I’ve been lucky many times in my life, but I also think we create our own luck by staying positive and controlling what we can—our actions, our character, and who we become. We can’t control what neighborhood we’re born into. We can’t pick our parents or how much money they make. What we can control is our attitude and how we adapt. That defines us.”

Marcelo’s mother was also on hand and received a standing ovation during a particularly emotional moment.

Marcelo gave special thanks to coworkers who were instrumental in his success and thanked the guests directly for their support of the Home that made it all possible. He concluded his speech with some advice for all the Mercy Home graduates.

“To all the graduates here today—keep grinding. Build foundations. Build relationships. Be committed to even the smallest rule. It all counts, trust me. Trust Mercy Home. Mercy Home opens doors for you that you don’t even know exist. Never forget that. Let those doors open.”

The event concluded with an appeal to our guest to support the education of our boys and girls through a paddle raise by WGN-TV News anchor Micah Mattere. WGN-TV was the event’s television supporter.

The event was made even more memorable for our young people thanks to a special visit by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who stopped by to congratulate our graduates and wish them the best for their future.

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