Imagine deciding at 10 that you would dedicate your life to helping impoverished kids and then making good on that vow. Imagine believing in your childhood vow so deeply that you had the courage, at 17, to look your parents in the eye and answer, "I don't know," when they tearfully asked when they would see you again.
Imagine not seeing your parents for 20 years after journeying from County Kerry, Ireland, to Sacramento so that you live your vow and help kids in poverty lead better lives.
Eileen Enright doesn't have to imagine it. She has lived this life, arriving in Sacramento at the age of 17 in September 1963 so that she could start her life as a nun with the Sisters of Mercy. Enright said she wasn't afraid of leaving everything she knew growing up on a dairy farm in rural, southwest Ireland. Her faith was strong enough to go where she was needed, even though she had no clue where that was.
"Going to Africa was one of my first choices but I ended up in Sacramento," said Enright.
She is now 71 and still living her vow almost 55 years later, but is ready to retire. She remembers the youthful enthusiasm she and another young woman from Ireland shared on that that fateful journey to Sacramento, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States.
"We were motivated, we were going to change the world," she said.
Enright taught or was a principal at parochial schools in West Sacramento, Auburn, Redding and Sacramento for years, but it is her current role, as president of Cristo Rey High School, where "Sister Eileen" has most embodied the vow that has defined a life of steadfast commitment to lifting up the least among us.
Cristo Rey is the Sacramento parochial high school that provides a first-rate, and costly, eduction to kids living below the federal poverty line. At Cristo Rey, students are prepared for the finest universities in the U.S. and they are given four years of work experience, where they learn to make eye contact, to introduce themselves, to shake hands, to show up on time, be responsible and to know how to behave in a work environment.
"This school gives us opportunities that many in our circumstances wouldn't receive," said Irene Delgadillo. She is a 16-year-old Cristo Rey student who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Like the majority of Cristo Rey students, Delgadillo's family gets by on an annual salary of somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 for her entire family. Her dad is disabled and can't work, her mom works at a retail store. Delgadillo dreams of being a doctor and Enright, as Cristo Rey's president, raises the money to make her dreams come true. She does that for a student body of roughly 375 high school kids.
Cristo Rey is part of a growing network of Catholic schools that are run through a nonprofit and started in Chicago in 1996. The idea was to raise the money needed to provide impoverished kids with the opportunity of receiving a rigorous college preparatory academic experience that they couldn't afford themselves.
The tuition at Christian Brothers High School, for example, is $13,522 a year, a sum that even well-to-do families struggle to afford. Sacramento Cristo Rey opened in 2006 because former Bishop William Weigand wanted it, Enright said. Weigand drafted her to help start the school. She did and then retired from Sacramento's Catholic Diocese in 2009. But she was still needed and stepped in to be school president in 2011 on an "interim basis."
"'Interim' turned into seven-and-a-half years," she said. Enright leads the fundraising effort with a great pitch: Help fund a school that changes lives, breaks cycles of poverty. Cristo Rey is where being poor no longer disqualifies kids from opportunities because they are poor.
More than 400 such kids have graduated from Cristo Rey Sacramento and more than 90 percent of them have been accepted to colleges and universities. "I could buy you a house but it could burn down," Enright said. "But once someone is educated you give them a gift for life."
Delgadillo will be the first in her family to graduate from high school. So will Alexis Aguilar and Cristian Rodriguez, both 16. All are children of immigrants, laborers, house cleaners, retail workers.
"Going to school here is a life changer," Rodriguez said. Enright has played a big role, but she is stepping away for good, retiring. Her lifelong commitment will be honored Friday at Cristo Rey's annual scholarship dinner.
She will sit still a few minutes to let her colleagues honor her, but she'll keep looking for Cristo Rey sponors until the school year ends in June. "I've been very lucky," she said of her life. "This has been heaven for me. It's what it's all about. I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity."
It's been a life of distinction well-lived, a life that deserves to be honored and a vow that deserves to be supported financially long after Sister Eileen has gone.