By Yadira Betances
---- — ANDOVER — Ashley St. Hilaire took 300 people on a roller coaster ride of emotions when she told them she is no longer living with her parents for legal reasons, and how she found a new family at Esperanza Academy.
“You can’t imagine what a difference the love and support I get at Esperanza made in my life when I needed it the most,” she told the crowd at Andover Country Club during the Harvest of Hope annual dinner and auction last Friday. “I know I can always count on my Esperanza family.”
Esperanza Academy is a free middle school for girls of all faiths, races and cultures in Lawrence.
“I feel blessed because I know there are many people who go through hard times who don’t have what I have. They don’t have Esperanza,” said St. Hilaire, a senior at the school.
Based on the Episcopal tradition, the school is funded by individuals, corporations and foundations. The dinner and auction raised $189,000 for the school.
“This year’s Harvest of Hope was a remarkable success,” Esperanza’s head of school Chris Wilson said. “From our dynamic speakers and entertaining auctioneer to the great attendance and all the funds raised to support our school, we could not be more pleased.”
Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, the Right Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, received the first Rosalyn Kempton Wood Award for his commitment to education and his dedication to working with youngsters.
Wood, the widow of Cornelius A. Wood Jr., William Wood’s grandson, and Susan Casey were founders of Esperanza Academy. William Wood owned the Washington and Wood Mill in Lawrence and the American Woolen Co. in Shawsheen Village, Andover. Rosalyn Wood is Esperanza’s biggest benefactress.
At the event, Shaw led by example by bidding on two student sponsorships at a cost of $6,000 each. Other items auctioned included a helicopter tour over Boston or over the lighthouses in the North Shore and Cape Ann, tickets for four to the Patriots game versus Miami Dolphins.
The keynote speaker was former television news journalist Liz Walker, now minister at Roxbury Presbyterian Church.
Walker spoke about the documentary she did about slavery in Sudan and the desire for parents to educate their daughters.
“They have a very bleak future. When you educate a boy, it’s fine, but when you educate a girl, you educate an entire community because girls become mothers and their reach is so far,” Walker said. “You are already a part of the world’s grace because you’re giving them a break and we need more of that.”
Esperanza Academy students were an integral part of the evening, from greeting guests at the door, to mingling with them during the cocktail reception where the school’s Violin Ensemble performed. The Esperanza Choir sang, “Wind on the Hill” and “Sing a Song.”
Esperanza alumnae Bianca Fernandes, who now attends Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire spoke of the impact the school had in her life.
“Because of my all-girls education, I am a very focused person who isn’t afraid to speak up for herself,” Fernandes said.
She said she has come a long way since coming to Esperanza Academy in fifth grade.
“Not only did Esperanza Academy gave me the opportunity to attend Kimball Union, but it gave me values of hard work, dedication, the importance of setting goals and the hope for a better future,” Fernandes said. “These are all the gifts that I’ll keep for the rest of my life.”