As a way to raise awareness of Illinois’ Invest in Kids program, parishioners at Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier in Wilmette are raising $800,000 for tax-credit scholarships. The money will be earmarked for students at St. Thomas of Canterbury, 5525 N. Magnolia Ave. The goal is for all the students who are on the waiting list at the school to receive scholarships. The Invest in Kids program allows Illinois income-tax payers to donate money to an authorized scholarship-granting organization and then take 75% of the amount off their state income tax bill. It began in 2017. Donors can designate a school or group of schools to receive their donations. Tax-credit scholarships are available to private-school students in kindergarten through 12th grade whose families meet income requirements, and they are given out generally on a first-come, first-served basis, with priority given to families in greater need. Chris Vallace and his wife are leading the campaign at Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier, and they are longtime supporters of the tax-credit scholarship program. Vallace said that donors from the parish had already covered the needs for tax-credit scholarships in their community, so they looked to St. Thomas of Canterbury as another place to help. The more than 300 students at St. Thomas of Canterbury all receive tuition assistance and their families live at or below poverty level. “We just expanded our community borders, if you will, to be inclusive of the sharing parish,” Vallace said. Vallace and Father Wayne Watts, pastor of Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier, are strong supporters of tax-credit scholarships. They hope that as more people become aware of the program, more donors will emerge and more students will receive scholarships, Vallace said. That would make it more difficult for Illinois legislators to eliminate the program, Vallace said. When the Wilmette parish started its campaign at the beginning of the summer, St. Thomas of Canterbury had 100 qualified students on a waiting list for tax-credit scholarships for the 2022-2023 school year. With an average tuition of $6,000 per child, the parish set a goal of raising $600,000 in scholarship funds. To help galvanize the program, organizers persuaded a small group of donors to create a $300,000 match pool, meaning any donation would be matched on a one-for-one basis. “We’re just putting an additional multiplier effect beyond the positive impact of the Illinois state tax credit with this incremental match,” Vallace said. More students enrolled over the summer, and the waiting list swelled to 133 students. Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier Parish increased its goal to $800,000, and a donor added $100,000 to its matching gift pool. At press time, the parish had raised $650,000. Christine Boyd, principal of St. Thomas of Canterbury School, said these tax-credit scholarships will go a long way. “I think this is an amazing opportunity for all of the students and their families and great relief to the school,” she said. “I’ve never had as many students covered as we’re going to have this year.” The school, located in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood, is very diverse. “We’re 98.7% newly arrived immigrants to this country — either the children are first generation here or they have just come from 37 different countries. They are largely from Africa, but we’ve had them from just almost every place,” Boyd said. The families often work in hotels and restaurants or other service-industry jobs, and do not make much money. They enroll their children in the school for one reason, she said. “They’ve come because they really want to invest in their children and see that their children get a high-quality education so they’re not going to be poor in the next generation,” Boyd said. Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier Parish partnered with Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship granting organization, to use this campaign as a pilot that can be replicated at other parishes with similar financial resources. Maris Harrington Tallentire, director of development for Empower Illinois, sees this pilot as a way to build bridges across communities. “Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier Parish in Wilmette have a 40-year relationship with St. Thomas of Canterbury Parish as their sharing parish, so this was just a natural fit,” she said, noting that St. Francis Xavier Parish in Wilmette had a longstanding sharing parish relationship with St. Thomas of Canterbury. “Our goal is to replicate this throughout not only the Archdiocese of Chicago but hopefully throughout the state and beyond the Catholic schools and Catholic parishes to other communities.” The school was originally a ministry of St. Thomas of Canterbury Parish, now united with St. Ita and St. Gregory the Great as part of Mary, Mother of God Parish. The school now is affiliated with Mary, Mother of God and the nearby St. Mary of the Lake-Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Empower Illinois will work with the new donors to continue the effort after this year. “We encourage donors,” the organization’s Harrington Tallentire said. “That’s something we work actively on, to make certain that if someone has donated one year that they are invited and they are really seriously considering continuing their donations, if they are able and if their tax liability permits, the next year to provide that sustainability and stability for families, students and schools.” It is usually easier for people to donate the second year, said Vallace, who serves on Empower Illinois’ board. “The big barrier is that first time that you do it, because there are some forms you have to go through and anytime you talk about tax credits people’s eyes glaze over,” he said. The second year, all of the forms are set up and donors usually appreciate the good they are doing while receiving a credit on their taxes, he said. “We’re targeting this to St. Thomas of Canterbury and we’re hopeful that donors are drawn in to wanting to repeat this on a go-forward basis, but ultimately we want people to be aware of this program, be aware of the need at St. Thomas, and ideally want to participate on an ongoing basis, but that awareness is probably the biggest obstacle,” Vallace said. Harrington Tallentire said tax-credit scholarships improve the lives and futures of many students. “Every child has the right and should have access to the best education and this is just a really impactful way to invest your tax dollars into those opportunities for students,” she said. More than 6,000 students received scholarships last year through Empower Illinois alone. “When we give, we often receive much more than we give,” Harrington Tallentire said. “This is such an opportunity to have an incredible impact, invest your hard-earned tax dollars and change a kid’s life and give them a brighter future.” To learn more about the campaign, email [email protected].