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St. Francis de Sales senior Rosa Mendoza has a lot to celebrate. Not only is she poised to graduate at the top of her class and be the first in her family to attend a four-year university, but she was also the first SFDS senior to receive a college acceptance letter this year. We caught up with this busy young woman to learn more about her journey.

How would you describe your experience here at SFDS?

 Rosa: Being in a small school has made it easier for me to voice my opinion and be able to talk to my classmates. I have one friend whom I used to not get along with AT ALL, and now she’s the closest person to me! I feel like it helped me realize that people aren’t always what they first seem, and you need to communicate to understand people. I also like going to mass and spending more time in church...sometimes going to church has helped me take a mental break from school! My teachers have helped me manage my time better and have made me get out of my comfort zone.  

What activities have you been involved with over the past few years?

 Rosa: A lot! I’ve played volleyball and soccer, and have also participated in the photography club, the newspaper team, and the National Honor Society.

What staff members have had a particular influence on you, and why?

Rosa: Mr. Sanchez and Coach Flores have both influenced me a lot. Mr. Sanchez has always told us that he sees potential in every single student. He’s always been there to help me, and answers any questions I have about anything. Coach Flores has been there for me since I met her, and she always listens to me complain and gives me the best advice! 

How did it feel to get your first college acceptance letter? 

 Rosa: It felt amazing! I applied to ten colleges—I think!—and I’ve received five acceptances so far.  

Have you made a decision on where you will go?

 Rosa: Yes! I plan to attend the University of Illinois and major in BioChemistry so I can get into Pre-Med and become a gynecologist.

 What is something that your classmates and teachers don’t know about you?

 Rosa: Many people at my school might not know that I actually hate socializing and it makes me very nervous.

Tell us a little about your family. 

Rosa: My family came from Mexico and I’m the first to be born here, so there’s a lot my parents and older brothers don’t know about this country and that I’m also learning as well. My family is completely determined to move forward and do their best. I don’t think there’s a day that anyone in my family just sits at home doing nothing. Everyone is always moving and trying to get ahead. 

What has been the key to your success? 

Rosa: I think it’s important to mention that this wasn’t easy. There have been nights where I haven’t slept because I’ve been studying for my classes, then staying up doing homework for Olive-Harvey College because I take dual enrollment classes there. I leave my house at 6:50am every day, and when I have class at Olive-Harvey, I don’t get home until 9:30pm, and that’s when I eat and start to do my homework or projects. People think I’m just smart so I get good grades and college acceptances, but that all has come from the hard work I put in.

 


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Mike Zunica’s Field of Dreams

While it may be true that no one gets into high school coaching for the money, it’s also rare for someone to trade in a lucrative career for a baseball cap and clipboard. Yet for Mike Zunica (St. Francis de Sales, ’81), a former options trader at the Chicago Board of Trade for 11 years, it was only a matter of time. “In my mind I always wanted to get back into Catholic education and coach,” he explained. “I made a deal with myself that if I could swing it financially, I would.” 

In 1993, Zunica began laying the groundwork for his career change, coaching sophomore baseball for St. Francis de Sales High School (SFDS), where he had been a star outfielder more than a decade earlier. “I had chosen to go to school at de Sales because of their great reputation for baseball,” he recalled. “We had nine guys in my freshman class who were committed to winning the Chicago Catholic League Championship. The school had never won one in its history, and together we accomplished that goal. It was a phenomenal experience.”

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More significant to Zunica than championship banners and trophies, however, were the more than 200 players from St. Rita’s program who proceeded to play college baseball over his two decades at the helm, with many going on to play professionally. That number—approximately 10 players per year—is more than ten times the national average for high school programs.

Zunica credits a large part of the program’s success to its priorities. "We made sure our players knew that faith and family came first, and then baseball,” he said. “But when they were on the field, all their focus had to be there.” His own commitment to his players didn’t begin and end on the field. “It was all about the journey, and my biggest goal was to make sure every one of my players felt they were equally important,” said Zunica. “I always told them, ‘our commitment to you isn’t just for four years; we’re going to be here for life if you need us.'” It is a promise he has kept, from writing recommendations for former players, to counting many former players among his close friends. “The relationships that have come out of coaching have been the biggest blessing,” he added.

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In honor of his achievements, Zunica has been inducted into three halls of fame: St. Xavier University Athletics Hall of Fame (2004); St. Rita High School Hall of Fame (2018); and Sports Faith International Hall of Fame (2016), in which he joined the ranks of George “Papa Bear” Halas and Boston Celtic Hall of Famer Bob Cousy. Zunica is also an eight-time Illinois High School Baseball Coach of the Year, and was named a Men of Tolentine “Man of the Year” in 2011, following in the footsteps of honorees including Cardinal Bernardin and New York Yankee player Nick Etten.

Following his retirement from coaching, Zunica served as president of St. Rita for three years. He is now in his rookie year at Brother Rice High School as Vice President of Development and Assistant to the President. “I’ve not been a big change guy; I’ve had my life planned out in chunks,” admitted Zunica, “but I love my new environment and I love the people I’m working with.” Asked if he misses coaching, he is frank: “Twenty-six years of coaching high school baseball is a grind—there’s a lot that goes into trying to run a program at the highest level—so really, it feels pretty good,” he laughed. 

For the past two years, Zunica has shared his time and talents with SFDS’s work study committee, helping to recruit local businesses to participate in the impending program. He says that the business response has been positive because of the important role the school plays in the neighborhood. “Local businesses know the value in the strength of their immediate surroundings and community. It makes sense for them to keep the school strong, as it’s a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood,” he explained, adding, “the East Side cares about SFDS and its future.”

Zunica’s participation on the committee stems from his faith in the mission of Catholic education.  “I agreed to help because I believe the gift of a Catholic education is one of the greatest gifts someone can receive,” he shared. “Those of us committed to Catholic education know that we have the ability to change lives and create opportunities, and we believe that that changed life will pay it forward.” With more than four decades under his belt between learning, competing, and coaching at, and leading Catholic institutions, Zunica shows no signs of slowing down. “SFDS changed my own life and I will forever be grateful, and will continue to do my best to keep paying it forward.”



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Team Aubert

Team Aubert

As you might expect from a teenager, St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) sophomore Jai Aubert is quicker to point out the differences between himself and his dad than the similarities. When pressed to identify things the two have in common, Jai eventually conceded, “We both love basketball and the Lakers, and we both like cracking jokes.” When asked about the differences between them, the self-proclaimed jokester was much quicker to respond. “I have hair; my dad’s bald,” Jai deadpanned. 

Their shared love of basketball has another important commonality: both have played point guard for the SFDS Pioneers. Last winter, Lanell Aubert (’94), a Chicago police officer, was working security for the school when his son Jai scored 25 points in the junior varsity game against Washington High School. “I was a proud papi,” said Lanell. “Jai had a great game.” Not surprisingly, Jai considers that game his most memorable experience at the school to-date. 

Both Jai and Lanell say that SFDS coaches and teachers have had a significant impact on them. “Mr. Moore, my basketball coach, and Mr. Myers, my baseball coach, believed in me and pushed me to be better,” recounted Lanell, who went on to play baseball at Chicago State University after graduating from SFDS. Off the court, Jai credits English teacher Mr. Hodorowicz and theology teacher Mr. Warner as “fun teachers who made the work seem easy.”

Perhaps most poignantly, when asked what has been the most important aspect of their SFDS experiences, both Auberts identify the same thing: the relationships they have developed. “The friendships that I obtained while I was there and that I have kept over the years are the most important thing to me,” said Lanell, who noted that he was looking forward to his upcoming class reunion. Jai admits that entering a new school where he didn’t know anyone was “kind of nerve-wracking,” but says that his sports involvement helped him make friends early on, which has made a big difference in his high school experience.

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The alum says it has been wonderful seeing his son thrive at SFDS. “I’m proud of him,” Lanell beamed. “I think he’s become more responsible, and he takes the initiative to do stuff on his own. I don’t have to push him too hard.”

Jai’s independence has been particularly helpful since Lanell has his hands full with Jai's two-year-old sister, Laila Heaven Aubert. Does Lanell find being a parent the second time around any easier? “Nope, it’s definitely harder this time around,” he quipped. “Being older, I need my rest!” Fortunately for Lanell, Jai says that although he definitely plans on going to college, he doesn’t want to go somewhere far from home. “I don’t want to be too far away from my mom and dad,” Jai explained. Perhaps Lanell can expect some continued help with his daughter over the next several years—but he may want to turn down any one-on-one basketball contests!

Comfortable in Her Own Skin- Paola Serrano, Class of 2019

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While her summer has included adventure, it won’t include much of a break. Earlier this year, Paola was awarded one of the City of Hammond, Indiana’s College Bound scholarships, a renewable scholarship based on academic achievement that requires recipients to complete 40 hours of community service for the city each summer. Paola says she’s looking forward to it: “Doing these community service projects is a way for me to give back to the community I’ve lived in my entire life,” she explained. “It also gives me a sense of pride, knowing that I’ve worked hard to earn this scholarship and that I plan to make the most of it.”

Next month, Paola will begin her undergraduate studies at Indiana University Bloomington with a specific long-term goal in mind: starting her own dermatology practice. Paola said that she became interested in dermatology after seeing the effect skin problems had on other young people she knew, and after becoming aware of the prohibitive expense of most prescription treatments. “I want to help everyone afford to be comfortable in their own skin,” she explained. “I also want to de-stigmatize acne, because it’s something everyone experiences to some degree.”

Helping others is something that seems to come naturally to Paola. When she was a freshman at SFDS and a senior she knew wanted to play softball but there weren’t enough players to form a team, Paola stepped up to the plate. “I didn’t know anything about softball, so it was a little rough,” she laughed, “but it was also a lot more fun than I was expecting it to be.” The experience taught Paola much more than just how to field and hit a ball: “I’m a nervous person, especially when I have to do anything in front of a crowd, but by the end of the year, that experience had definitely improved my confidence overall.”

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Paola credits many of her SFDS teachers with fostering those qualities in her, including Associate Dean Stephen Sanchez, who taught her government and history classes. “Mr. Sanchez definitely brings real-life situations into the classroom, especially ones that relate to the students,” explained Paola. “He talks about current events—issues like immigration and police brutality—and helps students voice their frustration and know they’re being heard. He also makes it known that students can come to him if there’s anything they need to talk about.”

When asked what words of wisdom she would share with incoming SFDS freshmen, Paola drew upon her own experience: “The biggest thing I would say is, don’t worry about what other people are doing or what they think or about fitting in,” advised the new graduate. “I didn’t have a whole lot of fun in the beginning because I was too worried about those things. I started letting go of that after a couple of years and I had a lot more fun, and connected a lot better with people.” 

With such an important life lesson already under her belt, and a true appreciation for her local and global communities, Paola will undoubtedly connect well with her future classmates and patients—and show them by example that beauty is much more than skin deep.

John Alfirevich: Driving Community

For most 12-year-olds, a typical summer includes bike riding, video game marathons, and hanging out with friends. When your dad is general manager of a car dealership and the local mechanics are on strike, however, those pastimes have to be enjoyed between assisting with oil changes, patching flat tires, and replacing headlights. That was John Alfirevich’s (’81) experience after his father, Joe, called him to help out at Bob Motl Chevrolet in the summer of 1975.

Around that same time, John’s older sister, Mary Jo, was attending St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) High School, and it was assumed that he would follow suit. John was not initially convinced: “I was playing football at the time, and Mount Carmel had reached out,” he recalled. Providentially, a football game was what eventually sold him on becoming a Pioneer. “In eighth grade, a friend of mine called me up to go to a St. Francis football game,” explained John. “We go, and we’re sitting in the middle of the student section. We were playing St. Laurence, and it was an army of guys coming out—they looked big, almost professional. When our guys came out, we were smaller in stature and in number, maybe half as many kids on the squad. We still nearly beat them and it made me think, ‘I love to be the underdog; it’s more rewarding.’ That was a deciding point.”

After graduating from SFDS, John went on to attend Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, on a football scholarship, where a knee injury cut short his football career. “It was kind of devastating,” he admitted. “I was en route to be a decent player.” John used the injury to develop a daily discipline: “It got me up in the morning, every morning, working out. Maybe if I didn’t injure myself, am I still doing all of that?” The experience taught him a lifelong lesson: “Let failure be your friend,” advises John. “Failure is so important to who you are and who you’re going to be; it becomes your drive and your passion.”

After graduating from Benedictine in 1985 with a degree in business, John began working full-time at the car dealership, which had been renamed Apple Chevrolet and relocated to Tinley Park. He has worked in every department, and today shares ownership with his father. John’s leadership over the past two decades has fueled not only the dealership’s significant growth, but also its tremendous community impact: in 2018, Apple Chevrolet donated to nearly 100 organizations, including American Legion Auxiliary, Colon Cancer Coalition, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, as well as many area schools, churches, and sports teams. In 2015, John was chairman of First Look for Charity, a fundraising event and celebration held the evening before the Chicago Auto Show. Under his leadership, the event raised $3 million for Chicago-area charities.

John’s dealership is also known for hosting charitable events such as Toys for Tots and an annual Barbeque for the Troops, which, in addition to providing food and fun for Illinois veterans and their families, raises $10,000 each year for the USO of Illinois.

A values-based educational background is evident in John’s professional ethos: “We treat our customers with unpretentious integrity, and that will always be a prerequisite for customer interactions in our dealership,” he explained. “Our philosophy and processes include 100 percent honesty in all our dealings, with open transparency in every transaction.”

John’s commitment to ethical excellence and community service has not gone unnoticed. He has been awarded the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Ethics, the NADA PAC Outstanding Achievement Award, and the Illinois Radio Broadcasters Recognition Award. Most recently, John was named Ally Bank’s 2019 TIME Dealer of the Year, and honored at an awards ceremony attended by 350 fellow industry and community leaders, friends, and family.

Of all of John’s accomplishments, being a strong community partner and creating and maintaining a strong team are two he counts among the most important. He received a lesson about the latter from his own son, John, now a marine biology major at Florida Southern University. “One day we were in the house and my son was cleaning out his 15-gallon fish tank,” recalled John. “I’m asking him questions about it and he tells me, ‘I’m building an environment here where if one thing doesn’t do its job, others die off. Everything in this tank has a job and has to do it to its fullest in order to ensure the health of the ecosystem.’” The conversation left an impression on the senior Alfirevich, and shortly thereafter, he purchased a 350-gallon aquarium for the dealership. “I didn’t buy it for the aesthetic,” explained John. “I pass by it every day, and it reminds me that everyone has a job, and my job is to make sure everyone does theirs. Here, as in the ocean, if someone is lacking something—education, skills, tools—it affects the others.”

Now with his two youngest children in high school, John says he is stepping back a bit from his work to ensure that he can participate in their busy lives. His advice to current SFDS students echoes St. Francis de Sales’ own iconic words. “I think young people should understand who they are and aspire to be who they can be,” John said. “The criticism’s going to come; you just have to believe in yourself and have bigger dreams.”