Comedian Mo Rocca: "I thought, 'Wow, this is so doable!'”
NBC News
updated 9/25/2007 5:47:27 PM ET 2007-09-25T21:47:27

Each month, we highlight a celebrity involved in a specific charity and have that person talk about his or her work on behalf of the cause. This month, we speak with comedian Mo Rocca about his work with the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that pays for poor students to attend Catholic schools in New York City.

Question: What is the Inner-City Scholarship Fund?

Answer: The Inner-City Scholarship Fund is a charity that, through a number of different programs, bankrolls 108 New York City Archdiocese elementary and high schools that enroll over 42,000 students.  These are not all the Catholic schools in the archdiocese in New York — these are just the 108 that have the poorest students. Ninety-three percent of the kids are minorities and 36 percent are non-Catholic, so this is a wide-ranging group. These schools just have an amazing success rate: 98 percent of seniors in these schools will end up graduating and 97 percent of them pursue higher education. It is an astonishing success rate. Statistics about the success rate of Catholic schools or parochial over public schools in urban areas are well known, but they bear repeating.

The thing, to me, that is one of the most compelling statistics is that ... it costs taxpayers $12,617 per head to educate a kid per year, in a New Your City public elementary schools. At one of these 108 Inner-City Scholarship schools, it costs about $3,600. So it is a $9,000 difference. And the chances of success are so vastly better in the parochial schools. I’ve been hit up by so many different charities. The Central Park Zoo, the High Line park project over on the west side — all really lovely projects — but there is nothing that is more important than a child’s education. To me it is just a no-brainer.

Q: Are there similar organizations outside of New York City?

A: I am sure that there are, because in every urban area … Catholic schools are an important safety net for kids that can’t afford other private schools but whose parents or parent doesn’t want them to going to the public schools. 

Q: How did you get involved with ICSF and what is your role?

A: I got involved because I knew that I wanted to support parochial schools in some way and that it is a real shame that parents have to send their kid to a public school when they don’t want to, when the schools aren’t providing adequate education and aren’t safe in a lot of cases. … So I was looking for a way to give and ICSF had a program called “Be a Student’s Friend.” And it was so tangible, and simple. For a gift of $2,200, you could take a child that would otherwise be in a public school and put that kid in a Catholic school for a year of elementary school. Or for $2,700, put a kid who would otherwise be in a public high school in a year of Catholic high school in the City. I thought, “Wow, this is so doable!” I had never contributed to any charity in any meaningful way before, so it also seemed not only incredibly exciting, but also like the perfect starter charity in a sense. Here was something where I could give an amount of money that I could afford and really, really rescue a kid. As dramatic as it sounds, it is really appropriate language.

Q: What inspired you to choose this cause over others?

A: What really hooked me into the charity was a visit to one of the ICSF elementary schools, Saint Aloysius. The school’s in Harlem and over three-quarters of the kids are living below the poverty line. And yet I had never seen kids so disciplined and so hard working. The principal and the president, two extraordinary, committed individuals, brought me into random classrooms and I asked kids at random to stand up and recite a piece from the latest recitations that they had memorized. It was extraordinary to reflect that the vast majority of these kids were from poor, single parent households. Right there, it just seemed so cut and dry. Such courteous, self-respecting kids.  And, surprisingly, despite the stereotype of a Catholic education, really educated in the arts. These same kids took a trip to the Whitney Museum and the docent at the Whitney was blown away by how much they knew about art and the questions they were asking.

So, while I love animals and obviously I think Central Park should be a verdant, lush lawn for all of us to play on, making sure that children learn to read and write in New York is not only a moral issue, it is an economic issue as well.Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg, said it best — that for New York to remain a functioning economy, it has to have educated people from that city. When you are hiring, you shouldn’t have to rely on hiring people from outside the city because the people actually educated in the city aren’t capable of doing the jobs that you need filled. If there were no other reason other than that, that would be reason enough to support a charity like this.

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to your role in ICSF?

A: The students that I sponsor, I correspond with. And I believe them when they tell me in their letters that they and their families are overjoyed that they have a chance to go to school in a safe place where they are actually learning. It is so cut and dried to me. Sorry, I am sounding so kind of shrill about this, but to me it is one of those things that is black and white. I mean, I hope for the best for the public schools in New York and I am glad that they are getting better, but it just seems wrong to tell a parent who doesn’t want to send her kid to a public school that she just doesn’t have an option.

The other thing that is satisfying about this charity is not only that the benefits so concrete, but also that this is about bringing x number of students out of one system and into a system where they want to be and are going to do demonstrably better. In short there are finite goals here.  Right now there are 8,000 empty seats in the 108 ICSF schools.  So the goal is to fill the seats. To get enough sponsors, to get enough donors that all the kids who want to be attending these schools can be attending these schools and fill those 8,000 seats. This is not a pie in the sky ambition, which I think also makes it a good charity.  We have very specific goals.

Q: What other celebrities are involved in this cause?

A: None. And believe me, I am the only person named “Mo” on the board of trustees.  … Also I think I am the only one under the age of 50 on the board. It makes me feel special!

Q: If people want to find out more, or become involved in this cause, what should they do?

A: They should go to www.icsf-nyc.org. We are actually starting now to ask for $1,000 per child per year to start a pre-school program. If I had to suddenly stop sponsoring my kids they would fall back into the public school, which is why we have to keep up the scholarships.

Q: When people hear that comedian Mo Rocca is involved in such a serious cause, what is their reaction?

A: I flirted with a number of different causes.  For a while I was really into permanent recognition of Taiwan as an independent state, but they didn’t want me.  I didn’t pass for Taiwanese, I guess.  So I sort of settled for this. I also think we need safer pet food.  I have become very anti-wheat gluten. No, I needed a cause and I probably chose the least glamorous, but I’ll wager one of the most important charities. If you’ve got any new diseases, send them my way, because I need to balance this whole kids education thing with something a little sexier.

Interviewed by Eric Kuhn of NBC News.

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