By Emily Drooby
Cathedral High School helped shape Debra Vizzi into the person she is today, but her path wasn’t easy or even conventional.
“I ended up running away from a foster home and becoming homeless,” Debra explained. She became a teenager who on her own had no one to depend on.
Debra eventually found shelter at a home run by the Catholic organization Good Shepherd Services. At that moment a few more angels entered her life, including Peter Flanigan.
Debra met Peter through a nun she met through a soup kitchen. Peter – a devout Catholic – was moved by her story and became a mentor to Debra.
He paid her $350-a-year tuition to Cathedral High School, which is how Debra became the first recipient of assistance from Student Sponsor Partners (SSP), Peter’s nonprofit which connects low-income kids with financial sponsors and mentors to help them reach their full potential.
“Debra was a very good student, and she really had a tremendous sense of humor and very kind, very kind to others. She was a good listener, she had a lot of friends,” recalled Marguerite Kiely, Debra’s former teacher at Cathedral who remembers her as a teen who thrived.
Debra eventually went to college, got a Masters degree and is now working on her PhD.
Over 35 years after she was blessed by the nonprofit that changed her life, Debra is giving back by serving as the group’s executive director. Now she’s helping out kids, just as Peter did for her.
“The reason I’m inspired to do this is simply because I get to change a life or save a life, and that never grows old. Every time a kid comes back or a child graduates, I know that I had an impact or a part in their success. To me that’s worth it,” she explained.
Debra also shares her story to inspire SSP students at her alma mater.
“It’s motivational because since she did it and conquered all of the things she had in her life, I think I can do it as well,” said Nicole Peralta an SSP student at Cathedral.
“Whatever low point you’re at, you can get out of that. You just have to keep striving,” explained fellow classmate Taylor Thomas.
Debra’s story is proof that with a little bit of help, kids can do anything.
Anyone interested in donating to Student Sponsor Partners or becoming a mentor can reach out through sspnyc.org.