OAKLAND -- Hardy Nickerson recalled his days as a high school student when his father, a cook, and his mother, a telephone operator, each worked two jobs and a good deal of overtime to afford to send him to Verbum Dei, a Jesuit-run Catholic school in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

Today, as head football coach at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, the former Cal and NFL player looks to help future generations. Many others at O'Dowd share the same vision.

"In this community, I believe we are family; I believe in this wholeheartedly; this is the Catholic way, the Christian way," Nickerson told a gathering of faculty, staff, parents, students and supporters at a luncheon in the O'Dowd gym on Nov. 7.

Bishop O'Dowd prides itself on the diversity of its students from the standpoint of race, ethnicity and -- even as a Catholic institution -- religion. The school also strives for economic diversity. Despite the best efforts of many of today's parents, though, the cost of an education at a school like O'Dowd often is prohibitive.

Thus the purpose of the gathering, known as the Fund a Dream Luncheon, a fundraiser for O'Dowd's financial aid program that the school hopes to hold annually. Nickerson served as master of ceremonies for this year's inaugural event with former 49ers star and NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott as keynote speaker.

As a rookie defensive back out of USC in 1981, Lott made an immediate impact on the 49ers, who went on to win their first Super Bowl. Lott, who took questions from the audience, went on to three more Super Bowl titles with the 49ers.

"In 1981, I realized you had to be committed to a cause," he said. "I will always be indebted to (the late Hall of Fame 49ers coach) Bill Walsh. He was an innovator."

Lott also spoke of former teammates, his own upbringing and the positive influence of his parents.

"I grew up in a military family, and I remember my dad telling me every day that your life is about service to others," Lott said.

When asked by an audience member about his greatest influence aside from his father, Lott calmly responded, "My mother."

"My advice is to love (your parents) every day," he added. "If I call (my parents) now, they would be serving somebody. I have a long way to get into their hall of fame."

Family and service surely were the themes of the event. Currently, some 30 percent of O'Dowd students receive tuition help from the school's financial aid fund, and O'Dowd will give out $2.4 million in financial aid this school year. This does not include those receiving help from such outside sources as Family Aid to Catholic Education (FACE). But the need for help exceeds the school's ability to fulfill it.

"We give aid to some 350 students," said Dr. Stephen Phelps, president of Bishop O'Dowd. "Even though our tuition of $15,000 is relatively inexpensive compared to an independent school, it's still a lot of money. There are a lot of deserving students who want to come here. O'Dowd is the most truly diverse school in the Bay Area. We want to bridge the financial gap."

Heading into the luncheon, O'Dowd had some $75,000 in its scholarship fund. The luncheon was expected to boost the total to more than $100,000.

"Bridging the socioeconomic gap is what makes O'Dowd special," Phelps said.

Those attending the luncheon also watched a video of O'Dowd students thanking donors for giving them the opportunity to thrive at the school.

O'Dowd senior basketball player Oderah Chidom, who will head to Duke University next year, then summed up the event in her address to the audience.

"O'Dowd has prepared me mentally, spiritually and academically for the future," said Chidom, who won a gold medal in August as a member of the under-17 U.S. women's national team at the FIBA World Championships in Amsterdam. "One day, I'll give back to my community in hopes of guiding young people in a positive direction."

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