More than two years after her death in February 2020, Sister Mary Trzasko, OP, is still inspiring learners and tutors. A large tapestry depicting Sister Mary with the first two students she tutored in Beaufort, South Carolina, hangs on a wall near an entrance to Adrian Rea Literacy Center.
Sister Mary responded in 1995 to a newspaper ad calling for tutors of at-risk children whose parents were mentally challenged and unable to help them in their schoolwork. She came to learn about more children who needed help in school for a variety of reasons. In 1997, she began Thumbs UP Children’s Education Center to meet those needs.
Now a 501(c)3 charity, Thumbs up provides year-round programs for at-risk, economically disadvantaged children ages 6 to 12 who are performing below their grade level. The program includes after-school tutoring and help with homework, an enrichment program, and a six-week summer program.
The tapestry was commissioned by the Board of Directors of Thumbs Up to honor Sister Mary at its 20th anniversary celebration, explained Sister Carleen Maly, OP, Director of Adrian Rea Literacy Center. The tapestry was presented to Sister Mary and, after her death, ultimately found its way to Adrian Rea.
“Adrian Rea Literacy Center is proud to have this stunning tapestry hanging on the wall of our main entrance,” Sister Carleen said. She invited Sisters and Co-workers at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse to view the tapestry during an open house on April 4. The tapestry and information about Thumbs Up and Sister Mary will remain at Adrian Rea to inspire the adult learners and the tutors.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1936, Sister Mary moved with her family to Hamtramck, Michigan, when she was 6 years old. She entered the Felician Sisters in 1953 after graduating high school and in 1973 transferred to the Adrian Dominican Congregation.
Sister Mary served in a variety of ministries, caring for people on the margins. In 1974, she began ministry as a community organizer with Sister Beverly Stark, OP, at a low-income area of Cincinnati, Ohio. They ministered together ever since, until Sister Mary’s retirement in 2007.
“In 1985, our Prioress invited us to come to South Carolina to explore justice ministry opportunities in Beaufort,” Sister Mary said in a talk at the 20th anniversary of Thumbs Up. “I began teaching in an alternative high school at the Low Country Human Development Center.”
While still teaching there, Sister Mary responded to the newspaper ad and began to realize the plight of many disadvantaged children. She started Thumbs Up to respond to their need.
“The mission of Thumbs Up is to enrich the lives of children in at-risk families and enhance their potential for success by instilling values and offering comprehensive learning experiences,” Sister Mary said in her talk. “These include doing homework and … teaching responsibility, empathy, respect, care for the environment, and community service.”
Along with tutoring, Sister Mary developed several programs at Thumbs Up: recruiting volunteers who provide nutritious snacks for the children before tutoring sessions; acquiring a small house for the program; planning weekend field trips to hiking trails, parks, the beach, and museums; and hiring a social worker to work with the parents in areas such as cooking and parenting skills. Sister Mary even bought a 15-passenger bus and acquired a commercial driving license so she could drive the children to and from Thumbs Up.