Letter-writing campaign gets ESL agency national attention

News-DemocratMay 13, 2013 

"How do you erase this, Brother Norbert?" "Why won't it let me type, Brother Norbert?" "What are you supposed to do here, Brother Norbert?"

The four kindergartners had plenty of questions while working in the computer lab at Catholic Day Care Center in East St. Louis.

Brother Norbert Karpfinger, an 80-year-old Marianist brother, found himself hunkered over Bailey Beverly's screen several times.

"That's my first name," said Bailey, 5, who wore braids with pink bows to match her polka-dot shirt.

"Yeah, you had it there before," Brother Norbert replied.

"Now I'm going to spell my last name."

"OK, good."

Brother Norbert spends about an hour each Tuesday and Thursday morning in the center's makeshift computer lab on one side of a storage room.

"I like to be of help, and I really want to work as long as I can," he said.

Brother Norbert always understates his role at the inner-city preschool and kindergarten, which serves about 60 children. He raises $60,000 a year by hand-writing letters asking for donations.

Most come in the form of $25, $50 and $100 checks, making up one-fifth of the center's budget. They pay for tuition waivers so even the poorest children can attend.

"I don't know what we'd do without Brother Norbert," said kindergarten teacher Pearl Clark.

Brush with fame

Under normal circumstances, Catholic Day Care operates quietly and frugally near Samuel Gompers Homes, the city's oldest public-housing project.

But its profile rose dramatically in March. The New York Times ran a story on Brother Norbert's fundraising, and donations began pouring in by mail. (The center has no website.)

"They came from Hawaii to Maine, Florida to Seattle," said Brother John Laudenbach, 74, administrative assistant. "The New York Times is well read, obviously, so really it's been a windfall."

The center had received about $50,000 in unsolicited donations as of last week.

"I got one letter that said, 'The article was awesome,'" Brother Norbert recalls. "And I wrote back and said, 'The result has been awesome.'"

He promptly sends thank-you notes to every donor.

"At least 400 stamps have come in the envelopes with these donations," he said. "In fact, there was one note that said, 'I don't really have much to contribute, but here are some stamps.' There was no check."

One man asked Brother Norbert to send him a sample letter so he could frame it.

"Some of these letters (from donors) are marvelous," Brother John said. "They're really inspirational. Sometimes it's just something like, 'My daughter's having a rough time. Please pray for her.' They run the gamut."

Teacher turned fundraiser

Brother Norbert is a Milwaukee native who worked as a math teacher and school administrator in Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois and Colorado.

He taught at Assumption High School in the '60s and Vincent Gray Alternative High School in the '90s in East St. Louis.

"I had Student Council (at Assumption, now a prison)," he said. "I ran the dances, and I got to know most of the boys. And I got to know some of the girls at St. Teresa's Academy."

Brother Norbert began serving at Catholic Day Care in 1997.

He and Brother John live in a two-story brick convent across the street, next to a vacant lot that once held St. Adalbert Catholic Church. The windows already had bars when they moved in.

"It can be helpful," Brother Norbert said.

The soft-spoken, white-haired man sits at the dining-room table to write his letters. Our Lady of Guadalupe prays in a painting over his shoulder.

"I do all my writing on this clipboard, which I got in 1955 from a brother at (McBride High School in St. Louis)," Brother Norbert said. "I'm glad he gave it to me because it's been handy for years."

Personal touch

Brother Norbert writes about 500 letters a year. Many go to former students.

"Dear Eric and Claudia," he began recently in his scraggly script. "After 43 years of teaching math in our high schools, I'm now in my 16th year at this wonderful charity for little children in this depressed city."

Thank-you notes also get a personal touch.

"Your hope regarding my health and activity is evident," he responded to a donor named "Norma." "I feel good, and I need no pills."

Brother Norbert always writes in black ink because it's official. He puts "J.M.J." for Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the top of letters and signs them "Yours in Christ."

"That's the way my mother closed all her letters," he said. "And I kept that up."

Brother John isn't sure how Catholic Day Care will spend the extra $50,000 from New York Times readers.

"That will be for a rainy day," he said. "We'll probably make a few improvements, but the building is in good shape."

To donate to Catholic Day Care Center, send a check to 617 Summit Ave., East St. Louis, IL 62201. For more information, call 618-874-7178.

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