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Shelli Bandemer, left, prepares for a rosary walk with fellow retreatants last March at a Dominican Sisters’ “Come and See” retreat in Justice, Ill. Dominican Sister Joachim of the religious sisters’ Immaculate Conception Province helped lead the walk.

Labouré Society helps Gretna woman retire debt

Shelli Bandemer of St. Patrick Parish in Gretna graduated from college in 2001 with a degree in music education.

More than a decade later, she began to feel a call to a religious vocation. But as she began the discernment process, visiting different religious orders, she discovered an unexpected barrier – her remaining student loan debt.

"I trusted that God would show me a path if that’s where he wanted me to be, but I did feel at times, that by the time I paid everything off, I’d be too old to enter," Bandemer said. "I’m 38, and a lot of orders don’t even discern for people who are older than 35."

Many Catholics don’t know that student loan debt can derail the pursuit of a vocation, said Bill LeMire, director of advancement at the Labouré Society, a St. Paul, Minn.-based organization founded in 2001 to address that impediment.

The society estimates that more than 40 percent of people in the discernment process are blocked from pursuing their vocations because of outstanding student loans.

Bandemer, who has been formally accepted into the Dominican Sisters’ Immaculate Conception Province, based in Justice, Ill., had been working two jobs to pay off her loans. But she can’t join the religious sisters as a postulant until she is debt free.

"It was just not working," Bandemer said. "So during my last visit with the sisters in the spring (of this year), when I was formally accepted into the congregation, they suggested that I reach out to the Labouré Society."

Some Catholic orders will not accept aspirants with any student debt, while some will accept a certain threshold of debt, LeMire said.

The Labouré Society teaches fundraising strategies and supports aspirants who have been accepted into a religious community, but still have student debt.

The society enrolls two classes a year – one in January, one in July – each of about 25 aspirants, all of whom have been admitted or conditionally admitted into a religious community.

The aspirants attend a three-day fundraising seminar and spend the next six months raising money – not to pay off individual debt, but to pay off the debt of the entire group.

"That’s a key piece," LeMire said. "They are not raising money for themselves individually; they are raising money for the class."

After six months, funds from the total raised are apportioned to each aspirant, depending on the amount raised and the amount each person owes. If people do not receive enough money to cover their student debt, they can enroll in the next session and their funds are held until they complete a second six-month term.

The team fundraising strategy avoids individual income tax issues for the aspirants and allows donors to claim tax deductions. The society pays lenders directly – small amounts over three years and the bulk of the balance in the 37th month.

"Our statistics show that if aspirants are in formation for three years or more, they tend to stay," LeMire said. The payment plans help ensure that funds raised are going to support committed religious vocations.

While fundraising, aspirants get daily support from the society in the form of webinars, phone calls and meetings with individual "accountability partners," mentors who accompany aspirants over their six months of fundraising.

Tim Bastian, a member of the society’s board and an economics professor at Creighton University in Omaha, has a daughter who graduated from the Labouré program. She is now Discalced Carmelite Sister Francisca of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, based in Valparaiso, Ind.

"When she started to investigate the society, we determined it would be a quick way to alleviate her loan," he said. "It is like an advanced sales training class, teaching them how to fundraise."

But there’s more to it than simply asking for money, said Bastian’s wife, Paula.

"When she started doing it, we realized that she was actually evangelizing through her witness," she said. "It’s not just about raising money – she was also raising awareness about religious vocations. Many of her donors are kind of like family now. It’s a really beautiful thing."

That is what Bandemer has discovered, as well. She has spoken to Serra clubs and various Knights of Columbus chapters, been interviewed on the radio and reached out to individual donors as she works with her class to reach their fundraising goal.

"It does get more comfortable and easier to do, but it definitely did not start out that way," she said. And she always holds the rosary when making an appeal.

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