It’s amazing the effect one teacher can have on his or her students—inspiring confidence, providing wisdom, and giving hope for a better future. It’s usually not an isolated moment—the way a teacher carries him- or herself, the way he or she interacts with his or her students students, those are the ways teachers change their students lives. But for one teacher, one simple offer changed one life, and in doing so, made a difference for hundreds more.
ACE Comes to Texas
Raised in Texas, Colleen Knight Santoni said she was excited when she found out she’d be returning to her home state to teach in ACE in the winter of 1996.
“It was great to be back in Texas after being at Notre Dame,” she said. “We were the first group to come to Fort Worth and they treated us like rock stars. They were really open-arms in welcoming our community. . . . People brought us into their homes and into their lives as if we were family; it was beautiful.”
ACE had served only communities in the southeastern United States up until that point, and so coming into a heavily-Latino population gave Colleen and her housemates a different experience than any of the ACErs that came before them.
“The interesting thing was that, when I started, I was 21 years old, and within a few months, I had parents who were coming to me and saying, ‘What can I do? As a parent, how can I help my child?’ That’s very much a cultural thing—the teachers are given much respect and much authority when it comes to the children, so as a 21-year-old, I was treated as if I had this great wealth of knowledge about children. It really made us step up to that; we really had to learn and grow in a way so that we could respond.”
For two years, Colleen and her housemates threw themselves into the Fort Worth community and were embraced wholeheartedly by the community there.
An ACEr in the Making
Patricia Salazar Harty was a seventh grader when Colleen and the other members of ACE 3 came to Fort Worth. She said that even before the ACE teachers arrived, excitement was building.
“Their arrival was definitely a part of a lot of excitement,” Patricia said. “We had just heard these rumors about these amazing teachers who were coming into our community. We were really excited. I remember my mom saying, ‘There’s going to be this new teacher here and she’s coming from somewhere . . . she’s not from Texas, she’s from Indiana.”
Patricia said that she was impressed with Colleen from the first moment they met, impressed with her as a teacher and as a spiritual leader.
“When I first met Colleen, I just remember thinking she was incredible. She has this amazing spirituality about her and she always did really well in bringing it to the classroom. She taught us to pray, she taught us that mass could be a different experience instead of just going in and being receptive. She renewed mass and spirituality for us in that she just brought so much energy to it.”
Colleen had made such an impression on both Patricia and her family that when Colleen offhandedly offered to take students with her on a return trip to Notre Dame, Patricia took her up on the offer.
“When I got into the car [after school], I was like ‘Mom, the teacher said that we could go to Notre Dame with her!’” Patricia said. “At that point my family had formed a personal relationship with [Colleen], and my mom thought really highly of her because I would always talk about her when I got home. We just had this great bond, so my mom was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I let her go?”
“I said that thinking, ‘of course, no one’s going to be able to go, it’s the next day,’” Colleen said. “But after school, Patricia and her parents came up to me, and her mom said, ‘Are you serious? Would you really take Patricia?’ She was probably the only student that I would have said ‘absolutely yes’ to right then, so I bought her a ticket, she packed her bags, and we went.”
Passing Along the Torch
When it came time to choose a college, Patricia decided to attend Catholic University in Washington, DC. She fulfilled her wish of attending Notre Dame four years later when she, like Colleen before her, was accepted into the ACE program.
“[Colleen]’s the reason I wanted to be a teacher, definitely, and the reason I wanted to do ACE,” Patricia said. “I remember thinking when I was a seventh grader, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like her, I wanted to help kids out like her. I wanted to have that energy, that spark; I wanted to inspire kids.
“She actually wrote my recommendation for ACE. I had been planning on it since seventh grade—I had no idea other programs existed. I was so focused on, ‘I want to do ACE; I want to do the program that my teacher had done.’ I knew I was going to do ACE, I just knew I was going to get in. It was just in me—it was just part of my life and I felt almost destined to end up there.”
Patricia taught in Washington, DC as a part of ACE’s 13th cohort, and continued to keep in touch with Colleen. When Patricia got engaged to be married, she wanted Colleen to be involved in a special way.
“[My husband and I] asked [Colleen and Francisco] to be the patrinos,” Patricia said. “That’s something that’s usually reserved for family, but I wanted to include her in a very special way because she’s not just a friend, she’s not just a teacher. She’s definitely more. Our relationship definitely goes a lot farther than that. With the things she instilled in me as a young adult, I just hope to always be a little like her.”
Colleen said her relationship with Patricia is just one example of the reasons she loves teaching and loved teaching in Fort Worth.
“I think I loved teaching there because the students needed you, the families depended on the teachers in different ways from even where I teach now,” she said. “The students really needed the role model and the mentoring. I'm really just grateful to ACE because it really helped me find my vocation. I’m still teaching and every day I’m so grateful for what I do. It’s such a gift.
For Patricia, she said Colleen was able to bring out of her a passion for helping people, a passion that has become her vocation.
“I want to help people in poverty,” Patricia said. “I have a passion for kids, and I really love teaching. I thought teaching was a really good way to do all of those things—to help people in poverty because that’s the one thing that gets people out of poverty, teaching them, educating them. I was really able to discover my talents because she was really great at posing those questions to us, even as seventh graders.”