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By Natalie Romano

 An Aquinas High School Valedictorian and Bishop’s Scholar is back in the classroom but this time she’s on the other side of the desk.

 Khaeryst Estrella started working at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Riverside this year after her acceptance to Loyola Marymount University’s PLACE Corps Program. Students in this service-focused institution divide their time between pursuing a master’s degree and working in under-resourced Catholic schools throughout Southern California.

 “It was such a blessing that I was placed to teach over here,” says Estrella, OLPH teacher. “I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I’m actually where I always wanted to be.”

 The Catholic schools of Diocese have welcomed 16 “Placers” since partnering with LMU in 2016 and currently has three including Estrella. In the first of her two-year commitment, Estrella is teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth grade English as well as Physical Education. She’s responsible for lesson plans, grading and providing after school tutoring if needed. Estrella says it takes discipline to get it all done.

 “The schedule is more hectic than I expected,” she admits. “Pursuing a master’s, and teaching at the same time - it has been a learning curve to say the least.”

 That’s why she can lean on her mentor teacher, Stephanie Martin, and Principal Ann Meier, no strangers to PLACE Corps. OLPH has previously trained Placers with the goal of hiring them after their education is complete. Meier says Estrella and fellow Placer Carlos Cervantes gain valuable insight from the staff, but they give as well as they get.

 “They bring young, fresh ideas and a lot of enthusiasm,” says Meier. “That gives a new sense of purpose to campus.”

 The principal of 11 years has observed Estrella in action and says she’s fitting right in.

 “Khaeryst is a go-getter,” asserts Meier. “You would not know she’s never been in the classroom.”

 However, that classroom is empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Estrella teaches via Zoom, spending about 20 hours a week on the video conferencing platform. Not exactly what she had in mind, but she says that like all teachers, she’s adapted. Her one concern was connecting with students across the screen. She was pleasantly surprised and relieved when some of her seventh grade students made her a digital birthday card.

 “I was really taken back by that gesture,” reveals Estrella. “I was worried I wasn’t building strong enough relationships with them and that’s what I loved about being in the classroom with my teachers.”

 Estrella says that from the start she loved school and wanted to emulate her Catholic school teachers. One of those who impacted her the most was Rebecca Forbush, who taught her at both Our Lady of the Assumption and years later at Aquinas High School.

 “She was full of life and energy,” says Forbush, who still teaches at Aquinas. “She was such an intelligent girl.”

 After earning one of the first-ever Bishop’s Scholarships, which covered her high-school tuition, Estrella felt like she needed to “excel 1000 percent” in her studies and would send letters to Bishop Barnes about her progress. That same ambition propelled her through the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in just three years. Estrella’s mom, Kathleen, says all her children were good students but Khaeryst was especially driven.

 “What the Lord has given her as far as gifts and abilities, she takes it and runs with it,” explains Kathleen Estrella.

 The entire Estrella family is deeply involved in the Church. Kathleen heads three ministries at Our Lady of the Assumption parish, her husband, Edwin, is a Deacon, assigned to St. Bernardine Church, and their oldest son, Christopher, is the Diocesan Coordinator of Liturgical Music. Daughter, Khiarra, teaches at Aquinas and the youngest, Chrisxander attends OLA School. Kathleen says she’s blessed to have a family that is so focused on service, Khaeryst in a quiet way.

 “She would go to our Sisters of Mercy Convent and help them decorate for Christmas,” recalls Kathleen Estrella. “She never told me about it, but the Sisters did.”

 Little did Khaeryst know, she would go from helping out at a convent to living in one. As part of the graduate program, she lives in the former nun’s quarters at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fontana with three fellow PLACE Corps teachers. Estrella says she finds inspiration in those halls.

 “They (Sisters) lived out their vocation here. It’s profound to think that I am establishing my livelihood, my vocation here as a Catholic school educator,” says Estrella. “It reminds me this is a holy experience. We are community members.”

 Intentional Community is one of the three pillars of PLACE Corps, along with Professional Development and Ignatian Spirituality, a tradition which emphasizes helping the marginalized. With that in mind, Estrella says she’s trying to reach her students academically, spiritually, and emotionally. The latter being particularly important in under-served schools.

 “They’re (LMU staff) teaching us how to approach kids in different situations with a heart of social justice...we inquire about their families, we ask how they’re doing,” she adds, “We strive to nourish the whole person.”

 Even the funny bone…

 “I like her,” says Ryan-Emily Kimble, OLPH sixth grader. “She tells us jokes. She’s funny.”

 Kimble’s big sister agrees.

 “She’s (Estrella) really good,” says Samantha Kimble, OLPH seventh grader. “She’s entertaining. She keeps us engaged.”

 Whether it be through humor or faith or compassion, Estrella says she thinks Catholic schools provide a richer experience than public schools. Despite dwindling enrollment numbers nationwide, Estrella hopes that Placers will demonstrate and promote the value of a Catholic education.

 “We are so excited to do our mission. I think that excitement will inspire other people to think differently about Catholic schools.”

 Forbush says her former student is on the right track.

 “She just needs to be herself and trust in the Lord and her own ability,” encourages Forbush. “I know when I retire our students will be in wonderful hands.”

 Estrella doesn’t want to be anywhere else...

 “My Catholic identity is integral to who I am,” says Estrella.

 “This is the perfect place for me.”

 Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.