“Be who you are and be that well,” St. Francis de Sales, namesake of Houma’s beloved cathedral once said.
Born in 1567, St. Francis de Sales became known in the Catholic Church for his patience and zeal in spreading the word of God to others through his actions and teachings.
It seems fitting, then, that a woman with such deep ties to St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School and whose legacy continues to leave an impact even beyond her death would embody the same characteristics that St. Francis possessed.
“Giving-wise, she never held anything back. She made it a point to always give to the veterans, the Wounded Warrior project was very important to her, to St. Jude…St. Louis Children’s Center,” Lori Rau, daughter-in-law of Rhoda Rau, says. “She lived [a Christian life] every day through friendships.”
Rhoda Rau, her family says, was a mother figure to just about everyone she encountered in her life, from her five sons, to her many grandchildren, to even the staff at businesses she frequented.
“[She was] kind of like the ‘general,’ in a sense,” Rhoda’s son Nick laughs. “From my dad, to every single one of us…she was mom to a lot of people. Not just us, but to our friends.”
Words like “vivacious,” “generous” and “welcoming” paint a picture of the kind of characteristics Rhoda emanated to those around her.
To her family, she was the axis – the person that kept in touch with everyone, that kept everyone informed and whose passing in October of 2019, following a battle with cancer, left a void in the hearts of both her family and community.
The Rau family knew that Rhoda’s legacy of generosity needed to live on one way or another. At a celebration of her life held at son Jeffrey’s house for the one-year anniversary of her passing, the Raus envisioned a way to honor Rhoda in giving back to the community and landed on one that involved her grandson, Bradley.
“We threw around a few ideas of how we could raise money and maybe donate it to the community…and nothing really felt right. Nothing hit our hearts, didn’t really describe Mrs. Rhoda…Cancer didn’t define Mrs. Rhoda. It was a very small piece of her life,” Lori says. “[Bradley’s] situation just fell with perfect timing, to where we said, ‘Well, let’s do this. This is lacking in our area.’”
Bradley, the son of Nick and his wife Jenny, was diagnosed with autism in 2017 at 18 months of age, after Jenny and Nick had begun to notice a decline in Bradley’s functioning around a year old.
Rhoda, Jenny says, was one of the first people to notice what was going on with Bradley and to assure her that his situation was something to look into.
Nick and Jenny knew they wanted Bradley to be able to attend a Catholic elementary school, particularly St. Francis. However, Bradley, who partakes in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, would require an ABA therapist in the classroom to be able to get the one-on-one help he needed.
Bradley attended St. Francis for a year with an ABA therapist, but Jenny said the situation did not entirely feel like the right fit. While an ABA therapist can control Bradley’s behavior, speech and sensory disorders, there are no resources in place to spearhead his education, Jenny says.
Determined to find a way for Bradley to attend a local Catholic school, the Raus came up with the idea of beginning a program under the Rhoda Ann Guillot Rau Foundation that would create a pathway for children with special needs to receive the one-on-one attention needed to thrive at St. Francis.
The GIFT program, Jenny says, will put a special education-trained teacher in St. Francis that will oversee the curriculum and extracurricular participation of around four or five students with special needs. Students will attend extracurricular classes like physical education and religion with their peers, but core learning will take place in a specialized environment geared toward each child’s specific needs.
“[The teacher], throughout their whole time at St. Francis, will be in charge of their curriculum, so if they’re in second grade, but they’re doing kindergarten reading and third grade math, that’s fine. She handles that,” Jenny says.
Students will also learn life skills that are beneficial to them, as well as have access to a separate classroom that provides an area for one-on-one learning or simply a place to go if a student is having a bad day. Paraprofessionals will also be present to accompany GIFT program students in their classes.
Starting the GIFT program at St. Francis in Rhoda’s honor was a perfect fit, given her deep devotion to both the school and cathedral. Her name is well-known at St. Francis, Nick says, and currently, 10 of her grandchildren are students there.
Additionally, Lori says that Rhoda was known for the way she welcomed everyone into her life, treating them as if they were a friend she had known for years. The GIFT program will strive to do the same for its students by welcoming them into the St. Francis community.
“That’s what we kind of want to do for these kids, is just give them a place and welcome them into this school, welcome them into our community and make them feel like Mrs. Rhoda made so many people feel – like they’re supposed to be there,” Lori says.
Rhoda’s daughter-in-law Teri came up with the name for the program, drawing from the gift that the students in the program will be to St. Francis, as well as Rhoda’s love of gifting.
“It helped us create another bond with her that extends beyond her death, to carry on her generosity and giving that always made us so happy and everyone else so happy. We can continue that in her name,” Teri says.
The Rhoda Rau Foundation has set an initial goal to raise $250,000 to fund the GIFT program at St. Francis for the next five years, with an immediate goal of $50,000 set to fund the program for the 2021-2022 school year.
Rhoda’s light will live on through the GIFT program, and through the Rau family, as well. To her children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, she serves as a model for living life to the fullest.
A note written in her husband Fritz’s yearbook during their senior year of high school in response to where she saw herself in 10 years sums it up.
“It said, “I’m gonna graduate, gonna work for a few years, marry F.R. – which is Fritz Rau – have plenty of children and enjoy the finer things in life,’ and that’s exactly what she did,” Nick says.
Lori says that the Rau family can already see traces of Rhoda’s spirit in her grandchildren, through their compassion toward Bradley and friendliness to those around them.
“I guess we kind of hope that we can show them that, even though Nana’s gone, we can continue her spunk for life and for helping and just helping them know that we can take something like this…this tragedy for our family, and redirect it and make it into something that everybody can benefit from,” Lori says.
As the GIFT program gets up and running at St. Francis, Rhoda’s legacy will live through it – a shining reminder to “be who you are and be that well.”
To learn how to donate to the Rhoda Rau Foundation in support of the GIFT program, visit rhodaraufoundation.com. POV