Sister Sarah Cieplinksi

Sister Sarah at Columbkille in Los Angeles, CA

Sister Sarah in Modern-Day America

They are eight and five years old sitting on a bench in the rear of food truck lurching through the South Central Los Angeles streets, their mother at the wheel and a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur on a laptop – and this is their classroom.

They are two of the Sister’s 19 students. The Sister is 37-year-old Sarah Cieplinksi, a former Notre Dame Associate who in 2018 made her final vows as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.

“It’s modern-day America,” says Sister Sarah, “and I’m continuing the work of St. Julie.”

Sometimes, in this year of COVID, the work has been virtual. Sometimes, in-person. Sometimes the students are at home. Sometimes they have no home. (One student lived in a house that burned; before that she lived in car.)

The eight-year-old in the food truck, a girl with a learning disability, has been in school a few days since April. The boy, who has trouble with articulation, has been strictly virtual. For a while the mother left them at home with a babysitter. “But the babysitter would just shut them up in a room,” says Sister Sarah.

Due to pandemic, Sister Sarah engages with most students virtually rather than in person.

So now they are in the food truck. And Sister Sarah, via Zoom, is there with them. She’s even conducted an annual and formalized IEP (Individualized Education Plan) during a time when the mother could park by the road.

“Their lives are not easy at all,” says Sister Sarah.

It’s a story playing out in myriad ways across America, and only now beginning to ease. Two-hundred-thousand businesses shut. Ten million jobs gone or in limbo. Thousands of after-school programs – a lifeline for working parents – suspended for fear of the virus.

“Families need to make money to eat, to pay the rent,” says Sister Sarah. “The mom [in the food truck] is really vested in her children’s education, but there are just such barriers now.”

Add to this the barriers of autism for some of the students, and physical and learning disabilities, which is why Sister Sarah came into their lives to begin with. Sister Sarah is a special education teacher. She earned an undergraduate degree in Special Education from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and a Master’s Degree in Education from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Growing into adulthood, she had three callings: to teach, to journey with people experiencing disability, and to enter religious life. As a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, she’s answered yes to all three.

Uncontrollable Variables

Sister Sarah consults a wide variety of educational resporce materials to provide a tailored approach for each child. For some students, working via a computer adds an additional layer of difficulty to their current educational challenges.

On top of COVID, on top of poverty, and on top of specials needs, most of Sister Sarah’s students have yet another barrier: language. In the school at large, 99 percent of students are Hispanic with many not understanding English.

“We’re trying,” says Sister Sarah, “the school, the teachers, the parents, the students. “We’re trying to work out the challenges, but it’s difficult.”

To help with English, each grade level has a Spanish-speaking teacher, but with in-person learning curtailed because of the pandemic, especially at its beginning, many teachers and students have had no choice but to improvise.

And, says Sister Sarah, “some kids can do things really well in person but then can’t do them at all on a computer. And it’s hard to help a child with writing on Zoom.”

And this is where Sister Sarah reflects upon St. Julie.

“Being a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur is being open to the uncontrollable variables. And it’s seeing, like Saint Julie did, the goodness in each child, and seeing all of the needs of the child.

“Even when there are barriers that come along, I ask myself how can I teach these students to be confident in their abilities and in who they are. I can’t let them get defeated. Some are kind of giving up and they’re in second grade! – and this can’t happen! I have to work to give them confidence in this world even if the world sees them in a certain way. Julie was bedridden for 22 years old and couldn’t walk. Society’s view of her was that she was a cripple.”

Sister Sarah stops here, for emphasis, because of all that St. Julie went on to do.

Blenders and Vacuum Cleaners

Sisters Phyllis Cook, Gillian Wallace, Nancy Uhl, and Sarah Cieplinksi enjoy growing fresh vegetables for their community.

“It’s a whole different way of working with a child, in person or over a computer. But I’ve learned to be ready for anything. Since April, every day my schedule has changed.”

Sister Sarah teaches at the South Central Kindergarten through sixth-grade Global Education Academy, a charter school funded through the Los Angeles County school system. As opposed to teaching a special education class, she instead teaches children mainstreamed into regular classes but who still because of certain learning difficulties require extra attention. Almost all of the children in the school are low-income and receive subsidized lunches. Most, also, are children of immigrants.

It’s the kind of school Sister Sarah always wanted to work in, and it would not be so unfamiliar to St. Julie.

“It’s a joy to me,” says Sister Sarah. “It’s great to be in a school that fits me, and needs me, and I’m a part of, and that sees the goodness in each child.”

Even during the pandemic, she says, “I get to see how the students are growing through the year. And the kids have handled it very well, have been flexible.”

Sister Sarah recounts virtual learning classes when kitchen blenders are sounding in the background, and vacuum cleaners, and when other people are talking off-screen. Or when younger siblings wander into the computer camera’s lens, sometimes literally crawling over the students. At times, too, those taking virtual classes are simultaneously tasked with caring for these younger brothers and sisters. And there is the inevitable bad Internet connection.

“I’ve seen it all,” Sister Sarah says. “It’s not the ideal learning situation to say the least. But the students really try to pay attention and to do their best.”

Sister Sarah lives in community with five others at St. Columbkille Parish two miles from the school, and most days walks to the school even as she provides virtual learning via Zoom. “Before I begin each day I think of all the struggles the students are living with. And I reflect on where God is in that, and try to act on it,” she says. “What can I do, how I can respond to the need?”

But slowly, she says, things seem to be improving. While the school still works on a hybrid model of education (virtual and in-person), more students are opting to return. There is an expectation the school will fully open in August.

“There’s hope!” she says, “It’s wonderful. And the kids are such a joy. They’re so happy, full of energy, a blessing to be with. They’re so excited to see me, and I’m so excited to see them. It’s wonderful!

Published in 2021  Summer Cross Current Magazine.