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Meet our Alumnae
The five goals of the Sacred Heart are the backbone of the Duchesne education and provide an important framework that impacts every student who passes through our doors. Goal Three, a social awareness that impels to action, motivates Sacred Heart students while at Duchesne and also influences them beyond their Sacred Heart education. For many of our alumnae, this dedication becomes a lifestyle, as social awareness is an essential part of their personal and professional lives.
Leng Abbassi ’81 feels as if she is living in a dream. With the opening of Tidachan (daughters on high) Sewing School in Cambodia her dream has become a reality. For years she prayed for direction on how she could help people in her native Cambodia. Many young women in Cambodia work 7 days a week for less than $30 a month which is not a living wage. If they could learn a trade their earning potential would go up and they could better support their families and move beyond the poverty of their existence. By teaching young women sewing skills they can earn between $200 and $1,000 a month depending on their skill level and their place of employment.Leng believes that participating in social service while at Duchesne taught her the importance of helping others less fortunate. “Duchesne developed and strengthened my relationship with God, to trust that God will show me where he needs me to help.” Duchesne continues to be a part of her journey today, years after her graduation. She credits Sr. Sharon Karam with encouraging her and believing that her dream could be a reality. Sr. Karam embraced the idea and has rallied the support of current students, including Leng’s daughter Ashley ’12, to help in the fundraising for the project. “I am so happy that my daughter is also learning to have strong faith and to help others. This is one of the main reasons we chose for her to go to Duchesne.”
Leng says often that this sewing project is not about her. “It is about bringing "hope" to the young girls in deep despair; and be the light to them in time of darkness.” On her last trip to Cambodia she was shocked by the number of orphans and the level of poverty she saw. She witnessed young girls, ages 3 and four, singing at the ancient temple and their smiling faces when they handed out clothes to them from the trunk of their car. “The children are so happy with any small things. I think it is a blessing that the little ones may not know that they live in poverty when they continue to be happy with whatever little they have. Once they realize they are hungry or poor, that is when despair sets in, and life begins to be heavy and un-manageable.” The goal of the school goes beyond just teaching the students a living wage earning skill, “Even though we are providing sewing skills, our mission is to provide hope, encouragement and inspiration to the poor and those in despair. We hope they will know God, His love and they will be no longer living in darkness and despair, but they will live with hope, and in the light.”
Opening the school and helping these young girls has provided Leng with a peace and happiness like none she has ever felt. Even though she does not know where the funding will come from to continue the school and provide housing for the students, she is not worried. “God will continue to guide me and help me. I pray and trust that God will show me how to do all of this.” By truly living Goal 1: A personal and active faith in God, and Goal 3: A social awareness which impels to action, Leng is carrying St. Madeleine Sophie’s vision forward from Duchesne. Her desire to serve beyond herself has led her to plant and “sew” seeds of hope in Cambodia.
Shelley volunteers much of her time with the Miracle Foundation, which operates four children’s homes in India and whose mission it is to “serve the least among us.” Shelley’s passion for India goes back a long way as her family has traveled there many times. As a flight attendant with Continental Airlines for 22 years, her work has given her the opportunity to travel all over the world. And when Continental started service to New Delhi and Bombay, she began working the flights. At the suggestion of her brother, Shelley found a way to participate more actively with the Miracle Foundation.
She first envisioned herself collecting and delivering donations, but the founder of the Miracle Foundation, Caroline Boudreaux, felt she would be more suited in the role of ambassador to the children. Shelley is dedicated to showing her own children the world, and her role an ambassador has been a great way for her to share her passion with her 13-year old daughter Rickie. Shelley and Rickie recently spent two and a half weeks in India, where they spent much of their time playing with the kids, changing diapers, and taking pictures of the kids to send to their sponsors.
Shelley remembers the social awareness program when she was at Duchesne as very much a natural part of what it meant to be a Duchesne and a Sacred Heart girl. “No big fuss was made over service hours,” she explained. “It was just part of the fabric of a weekly school schedule, and I think this is a good model for living. Service to others is a natural, integral part of life.”
Shelley fondly remembers the impact that Sr. Dunn and Sr. Flynn had on the social awareness program when she was a student. “In the mid 70s, we may have been the luckiest Duchesne girls of them all! We had the light-hearted but down to earth practicality of Sr. Dunn, and the embodiment of spiritual servitude, also light-hearted, Sr. Flynn. I have heard so many stories about Sr. Flynn and her dedication to ‘the least of those’ in the Houston community - and she hasn’t lived here in more than 30 years! She has remained, probably without realizing, my life’s mentor.”
Shelley is a strong advocate of weaving service to others into ordinary lives. “I tell everyone who will listen what a difference one person can make - the smallest acts will add up to the largest gifts we can make to our children.” To learn more about the Miracle Foundation, visit www.miracle foundation.org
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies and International Development from Tulane University, Natalie moved to New York City with Teach for America, teaching three years at a bilingual school in an immigrant neighborhood. Currently living in New Orleans, Natalie will be moving to the Dominican Republic in August with the Peace Corps where she will be working in her requested field – Youth Development. There, she will be able to bridge her background of education and public health and hopes to use her experience to empower youth in her community.
Her desire to gain a global perspective and develop social awareness comes from an experience she had during her junior year at Duchesne. Natalie and a few of her classmates became involved in “Amigos de las Americas,” and Natalie made a commitment to spend a summer in Latin America. During the entire school year, she trained every Sunday and learned skills to share with the people in the Oaxaca, Mexico. “It was my first time to get out and see the world,” she said. “As a 16 year old, I figured I would go to the community and contribute to it. I was struck by how they welcomed me with open arms, and they really ended up helping me. I had a very innocent understanding of the world, and now I have spent years studying, researching, and gaining an understanding of what people need and what really makes them happy.”
According to Natalie, high school was such an impressionable time and she remembers gaining such a strong understanding of social awareness, but social justice in particular. “I still remember some of the things we talked about in my classes with Sr. Karam and my religion classes,” she said. “It laid a strong foundation for how I look at the world and to me, serving people has become a lifestyle. It has melded into something I see in my professional life and beyond.”
Natalie’s Peace Corps commitment is for 27 months, where upon her completion of the program, she will receive her master’s degree in Public Health through Tulane’s Masters International Program. Natalie has a great love and gift for teaching and hopes to one day get her PhD. Although she is unsure what she will do after the Peace Corps, Natalie is sure to continue her passion for social awareness and service.
Nicole went to USC for her undergrad in theatre, and now lives in Los Angeles where she is developing a non-profit called Your Community Garden. Your Community Garden is a “non-profit organization committed to building school gardens and a social network education tool that allows parents, teachers, and students to share information and resources.” Nicole’s path to the non-profit world led her through an eight-year career in the advertising business. Through her work in advertising, Nicole realized she wasn’t passionate about selling other people’s stories and goods. “I wanted to tell stories that I was passionate about,” she said.
Nicole is most motivated when she sees inequality, and that motivation drove her to change children’s perspective on food and put the power to grow their own food back in their hands. “When people can’t afford fruits and vegetables, but they can pay for fast food with no nutrients, that is not okay with me,” she explained. “When you control the food source, you control the people.” The purpose of Your Community Garden is to equip young people with a strong understanding of gardening, nutrients, and food. “I have always been passionate about healthy food, and my feeling has been if you eat well then that will bode well for you for the rest of your life.”
Nicole believes that the single sex education at Duchesne played a large role in her passion for social service. “When you are a girl at an all girls’ school, you can step into any role,” she said. “Every role can be your role. The same goes for social service.” Nicole has carried this lesson onto to those affected by her non-profit and hopes to empower children to take control of what they put in their bodies. For more information on Your Community Garden, visit www.yourcommunitygarden.org.
In her professional life, Karen is a fundraiser for the philanthropic arm of UNICEF, where she finds her work with donors incredibly rewarding. “It is a privilege to share the experience of changing the life of a child, actually saving their life through providing food, shelter and education,” she said. Since her years at Duchesne, Karen has continued to volunteer for many non-profits, notably the homeless center, The Beacon.
“Duchesne empowered me and instilled in me the belief that I could do anything, that I could make a difference in my community and in the lives of others,” she explained. “The religion classes, social service projects, and the examples provided by the faculty, the religious, and my fellow classmates became central to the formation of service to others as a core part of my life.”