Every year, there’s one set of phone calls that Dr. Kathleen Cepelka says is her favorite to make.

As the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Dr. Cepelka has the happy task of notifying the recipients of each year’s GIFTS grants, who receive either $5,000 or $10,000 for a project that aligns with one of the program’s focus areas.

“When I make those calls, usually in late May or early June, the principals are just thrilled to know that they’ve received this money. It’s just very, very touching to know how much it means to them,” she said.

Last year, the program was able to award grants exceeding $200,000 to schools around the archdiocese, selected by a panel that Dr. Cepelka leads, assisted by archdiocesan personnel and retired educators.

The GIFTS program is funded entirely by money raised at the archbishop’s annual Catholic Schools Dinner, a popular event that typically hosts up to 600 people for a cocktail hour, dinner and speaker. This year, due to the pandemic, the schools dinner will be a virtual live event featuring Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, James Cardinal Harvey and Bishop Donald J. Hying as they discuss their memories of their own Catholic education. Registration for the event will be free, but donations for the GIFTS program are still very much needed.

Dr. Cepelka described the GIFTS grant program, which is in its third year, as “truly a gift program — meaning it addresses a school’s desire to be creative, beyond the practical.”

“It’s one of the most effective outreach programs to schools that I have had the privilege of experiencing in my 11 years as superintendent, because it helps to very practically address local needs,” she said. “People might think, well, what does a grant of $5,000 or $10,000 do when the needs of Catholic education are so enormous? But a grant of $5,000 can enable a school to provide a new program for literacy, can allow a school to update its religious environment — artifacts, iconography — it can enable a school to start an innovative program in the STEM area that it just wouldn’t be able to do otherwise because there isn’t that extra cash available for it. It’s intended to, and it does, expand schools’ potential beyond the immediate, practical line items that are in its budget.”

St. Katharine Drexel Parish School in Beaver Dam was one such school. Last year, they were awarded a $10,000 grant in the focus area of Catholic Identity. The project that was supported by the grant had three parts — to create a physical environment that manifested the school’s mission to raise up disciples of Christ, to provide students and families the opportunity to grow in the knowledge and practice of virtues, and to provide staff the opportunity for spiritual growth and faith formation through Cardinal Stritch University’s Saint Clare Center.

The school used the money to purchase three large canvas pictures depicting scenes from Scripture, and plan to hang them next to framed text matching the scene. They also purchased a large picture of their patron saint and a Cricut cutting machine to create stenciled quotes attributed to her that can be placed around the school.

The school was also able to purchase the Disciple of Christ: Education in Virtue Program, produced by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, to implement across all classrooms in the school.

The grant “is really life-changing in that you now have this opportunity to provide things in this over-the-top way that you would not have otherwise,” said Jennifer Crombie, principal and administrator at St. Katharine Drexel. “Public or private school, you’re always looking for funds for the ‘extra things’ — however, this is so foundational, it’s really not extra. It’s just so nice to be able to do it well.”

Jim and Paula Schubilske, who are chairing the schools dinner for the second year in a row, pointed out that “resources at our Catholic Schools are always tight and this event funds special initiatives that are worthwhile but wouldn’t normally get funding from a school or parish.”

“In addition, the GIFTS programs get spread all over the archdiocese and this event can spotlight these initiatives for all the schools to see,” said the Schubilskes. “Not only do great efforts get recognized, they might inspire other schools to try what has worked elsewhere.”

This year, said Dr. Cepelka, the GIFTS grant program — which stands for Grant Initiatives For Today’s Students — is more important than ever, with archdiocesan schools stretched thin in terms of resources as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

“They can’t pull $10,000 or $5,000 out of their budget easily. This allows them to do things they really can only dream of,” she said. “Schools’ budgets have been strained with pandemic needs, PPE, resources — they just have less money to use this year. This is a tighter situation all-around for them.”

The virtual schools dinner, entitled “Crosiers, Comedy and Catholic Schools,” is being held live at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 13. Registration is encouraged by Monday, April 5, and can be completed by visiting archmil.regfox.com/schoolsevent2021.