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When his oldest sister began first grade at his school, Nate Balinbin wasn’t even born. Nor was he when his next sister started school, or for his brother, who was a couple siblings down the line.
When Nate, the youngest of the Balinbin family, graduates from St. Monica’s School this June, he will be the last from a line of family members that have attended the school for the past 29 years. Ranging from ages 35 to 13, Julie, Jacqui, Angela, Elena Tony, Joey, Kaylia, Gemma, Blaise and Nate all passed through the hallways of St. Monica’s. The line dates back to the fall of 1984, when Julie started first grade at the school.
“It went by fast,” said the Balinbins’ father, Dayton Balinbin.
Jeannie Balinbin, a native Islander and proud mother who is also a product of St. Monica’s, was a baby when her parents were founding members of the church and school in 1960. She met Dayton, who is originally from Maui, while attending Seattle University in 1976.
Both parents talk glowingly of the school where they sent their ten children. Jeannie said the school goes the extra mile to find a student’s strength to share with the community. Dayton praises the school for having a non-threatening environment for students to grow spiritually, socially and to develop leadership skills.
“It’s one big family there. The kids have a nurturing environment to learn. The teachers are wonderful, they help the kids. Whatever the strength or weaknesses are, they bring it out,” he said. “The progression, academically, spiritually, socially, the growth is wonderful to see.”
“Time and time again, how St. Monica’s has prepared them for high school has been very, very evident,” Jeannie said. “To give example, at St. Monica’s they spend a lot of time public speaking, whether it’s in classroom or in front of the school or whatever. We came back from mass, there are fourth graders singing in front of 600 people… when our kids went to high school, they noticed a definite difference of how other kids had difficulty presenting themselves in front of a class, let alone the school.”
Jeannie recalled when their daughter Gemma was at Mercer Island High School. Gemma, who is currently studying vocal performance at the University of Denver, had a solo in a performance of “America the Beautiful” during an MIHS assembly for Veteran’s Day. Gemma would sing first, and then the whole school would join.
“High schoolers singing, yeah right,” said Jeannie. “She gets up there, the band starts playing, and she makes her arm movement as she would cantering,” Jeannie recalled, gesturing how the whole gym rose up to join in. “How many high school kids, one kid, could lead the whole school? Parents, teachers, students, it was just amazing. I bring that training back to what she learned [at St. Monica’s].”
Of course having ten kids in school came with a few obstacles, like when it came to managing schedules for sports and fundraising.
“When Julia was in 8th grade, we had five [at St. Monica’s]. That was a challenge,” said Jeannie. “When you have five kids attending a school at the same time, you have to do the fundraising, you have five kids selling fun-wrap, it was more coordinating the kids activities. Especially during sports. So you have soccer games, five soccer games to go to on the weekend, which one do you go to? Or basketball? You have kids playing basketball, you can’t be in two places at once.”
“Often times what would happen, Jeannie would go to one set of the kids’ games and I’d go to the other, and the next week we’d switch,” said Dayton.
“And the year we had five kids selling fun wrap, you know it worked out,” added Jeannie. “I mean there’s a limited amount of neighbors you have, but they would go after mass on Sunday when they had coffee and doughnuts. It all worked out.”
There have been changes. The Balinbins have seen additions to the school and the addition of a preschool. School used to start with 8 a.m. mass, but now begins with 9 a.m. mass only on Fridays. Jeannie said the school’s demographic has changed, as it used to be primarily Mercer Island families and it was rare to have off-island families that would go to school. She said now it’s flip-flopped, with more off-island families. Dayton said technology has been the biggest change over the years, like with the school going from blackboards to smart boards. “I’m dating myself when I talk to Nate, I said, ‘Where’s your eraser?’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about, dad? You just touch the board and it comes on.’”
When asked if Nate’s graduation signifies the end of an era for the Balinbins, Jeannie’s response is mixed.
“Yes and no,” she said. “We’ll still be there, we’ll still volunteer. I would drive field trips. I have time for that, if they needed. I love the community, I love the school, it’s great.”
And it won’t be long for the next generation to arrive. Jeannie and Dayton’s granddaughter will be starting pre-school, and she just had her evaluation.
“If Angela’s little Maya is in, we’ll be there,” said Jeannie.