Celebrating Our 2021 “Joy & Gratitude” Dinner Honorees
At Saint Catherine Center’s annual “Joy & Gratitude” Dinner on October 3, 2021, three dedicated volunteers were recognized for their commitment to our mission: Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama of Darien was honored with the Volunteer Service Award for her dedication to the development and implementation of the Library Program at Saint Catherine Academy; and Elena and Steve Schlegel of New Canaan received the Leadership Award in recognition of their vision and commitment to the expansion of the Center.
Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama – Volunteer Service Award
In 2008, when Virginia Dwyer-Aoyama was a new member of the Order of Malta, she took on the task of initiating a library program for Saint Catherine Academy students. The goal was for the students to feel comfortable in a library by hearing stories read aloud and having fun with books. Led by a dedicated group of Malta volunteers, the library program is today 13 years old and part of the Academy’s weekly program.
“The students learn to listen and participate in a story – sometimes by clapping or singing along,” Virginia said. “We hoped that their exposure to reading at school would give them options for their free time at home. We wanted to teach them how to choose and check out a book, even if just to enjoy looking at the pictures.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, when volunteers were not able to enter the building, Virginia and several members of the team recorded stories and read to the students on Zoom.
Virginia has a Master’s degree in social work and has spent many years providing family and individual counseling and working in the substance abuse field. She grew up outside of Chicago and is one of seven children. “My parents’ Catholic faith and love for their family centered their lives,” she said. “They taught us that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected in return.’”
Virginia has taken that message to heart and lived it out with her family. Volunteering at the Center has been a family affair. Each of the children has been involved, making sandwiches on PB&J Fridays, reading at the library, singing at Mass, and even constructing raised beds for the backyard garden. “Knowing and loving the students at Saint Catherine’s has been a significant blessing in our family’s life,” Virginia said. “One never knows where saying ‘Yes’ to Helen might lead.”
Virginia is an active member of St. John’s Parish in Darien. She and her husband Andy have four adult children and a new grandson.
Elena & Steve Schlegel – Leadership Award
Elena Schlegel first volunteered at the Center in 2015 on a PB&J Friday, the Academy’s monthly community service project where students and volunteers make sandwiches for Merton House. Shortly afterward she attended the Center’s annual Christmas Pageant and in 2018 began to volunteer in the Library Program. “To be with the students is so grounding,” she said. “It’s eye-opening to see how much joy they have in the little things.”
When Elena and Steve’s daughter Katherine passed away in 2018, they asked that contributions in her memory be designated to a special fund established to support the future expansion of the Center.
“Katherine had a remarkable generosity of spirit,” Steve said, “and she was passionate about organizations like Saint Catherine’s.” In May 2021 the Schlegels hosted an event to launch the Building For the Future Campaign.
“Elena and Steve embody two important elements of leadership: empathy and influence,” said Helen Burland, Executive Director. “They care deeply about what we do, and they have shared that passion to bring others on board to support this much-needed expansion.”
The new kitchen at the Center will be named “Kat’s Kitchen.” “We’re so excited about this endeavor with Saint Catherine’s,” said Elena. “Taking something this tragic and trying to turn it around and help other people has helped us quite a bit. It has been a really great thing for our family. And it’s exactly what I know my beautiful Katherine would want us to be doing.”
Elena is a sales professional at Ralph Lauren in New Canaan, and Steve is COO at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate company. They have two grown sons, Jack and Matthew, and have lived in New Canaan for the past 20 years. They are members of St. Aloysius Parish.