MARCH 2017
Jennifer Crusco
Communications Assistant

Awareness Day at AHA Shines Spotlight on Personal Development


Demarest, NJ: Awareness Day 2017, “Empowering Girls: Connecting Mind, Body, and Spirit,” drew a host of speakers to the Academy of the Holy Angels. The day’s overarching theme was personal development.

“I am grateful to the many faculty and students who have had a hand in preparing and presenting various parts of the day,” said Mission and Ministry/Religion Teacher Joan Finn Connelly, the driving force behind this annual event. “Awareness Day encourages learning in yet another format.  It allows us to offer a keynote session and a variety of workshops. Some workshops are presented by students who share their recent experiences and insights with their peers.  Other workshops are led by outside presenters with a specific area of expertise.” 

The day began with a presentation by the Girl Rising Club. The program, facilitated by club members Katherine Staff, Amanda Hernandez, Sophia Ortiz, Alexandra McCartha, and Julia Scheuring, consisted of multiple videos depicting the lives of girls around the world. The videos included the stories of children living in the dumps of Cambodia, girls fighting to stay in school in India and Haiti, and girls who may be given in marriage in Ethiopia.

The first session included a wide variety of workshops, one of which was “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty through Education.” Sister Jean McLoughlin from the School Sisters of Notre Dame Educational Center in Queens (NY) and Claudia Larrosa, a student from the English as a Second Language program, discussed the work being done at the center.

Based in a renovated convent in Woodhaven, Queens, the center is strategically situated between LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports, where people from many countries enter the United States each day. S. Jean pointed out that immigrants may arrive with careers and advanced degrees, but lack the English skills they need to communicate effectively. She pointed out that people from many diverse cultures forge friendships as they learn English and/or receive their high school diplomas together.

S. Jean noted that her Awareness Day workshop was being presented in Room 222, which had been her classroom when she taught at AHA some 40 years ago.

Larrosa, who hails from Argentina, is a television and radio producer who came to the United States with her three children. Her search for an English course began at a local college, but she found that option very expensive. As she continued to explore local resources, she found the SSND Educational Center. This student’s goal was to participate in an interview in English – a milestone she has achieved as a result of her studies at the center.

“Believe in your dreams,” Larrosa told the AHA students. “My dream came true.”

Session II of Awareness Day also featured a multitude of options, including a talk featuring AHA Social Worker Sister Mary Foley and Luke the therapy dog.

S. Mary and Luke spread comfort and joy in the halls of Holy Angels and well beyond. This dedicated team visited Newtown, Connecticut following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to meet people who had lost their homes after a tornado. In Connecticut, one child who had become reticent following her brother’s death, began to speak while she was petting Luke.

The science behind therapy animals, S. Mary explained, is that touching a dog (and other animals, including cats and rabbits) raises levels of oxytocin, a calming hormone, and lowers levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone.

Over the years, Luke has visited local libraries, where children develop their reading skills by sharing books with this non-judgmental animal. S. Mary noted that, people have a tendency to correct children who make mistakes while reading aloud. That, she said, can make a new reader feel tense. In contrast, Luke will sit patiently and listen, allowing the young reader to correct him or herself.

Luke has also appeared in schools, nursing homes, and even private residences in instances where a bed-ridden person has a need for a therapy dog.

The third session featured Just Us, a discussion featuring the students who attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and those students who attended the SSND trip to the Arizona border town of Douglas; a program about the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and AHA Campus Ministry featuring Laura Sadano and Kathy Sylvester; and an alumna panel who shared information about their varied careers. The career panel included Vanessa Arteaga Rissetto, Class of 1996, a Registered Dietitian and nutritionist; Mary McDermott DiGiulio, Class of 1981, a primary care nurse practitioner; and Elizabeth Quiñones, Class of 2010, an intern at New York University’s Rusk Rehabilitation program for Traumatic Brain Injuries.


Since 1879, thousands of women have passed through the portals of Academy of the Holy Angels high school, the oldest private girls’ school in New Jersey. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts and athletics. Our goal is to provide each girl with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially and physically, by offering a first –rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity and giving service to others.

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