“We feed them love.”
Father Israel Rodriguez uses these words to describe why St. Mary of the Assumption Parish’s Middle School Youth Program is such a success. It seems that Father has concocted the perfect recipe for attracting children to a faith program: food, formation, fun. And sprinkled atop that recipe? A very large dollop of joy.
Begun as an initiative to involve and enlighten the “often-bored” children in the parish’s post-Communion program, St. Mary’s Middle School Youth Program (MSYP) has exceeded its greatest expectations. Thanks to a grant from the John J. and Margaret M. Flatley Fund, nearly 140 children are beneficiaries of this weekly program that serves up faith and fellowship to children yearning for both.
The program begins each Friday evening with every child being treated to a formal, sit-down meal complete with tablecloth, real silverware, and flower vases. Why such a deliberate attempt at fanciness? “We serve them like they would be served in a restaurant,” says Ana Cardenas from the parish’s Religious Education Office. “Our volunteers prepare homemade food, and the children learn not only etiquette and good manners, but they also have an opportunity to practice good socialization skills.” Because cell phones and social media often vie for young people’s attention, the children are not allowed to use their phones during program hours. “This helps them build healthy communication skills such as eye contact and self-discipline,” adds Ana. “We treat them with dignity and like they are special guests… because they are.”
After dinner, the children move on to the faith formation part of the evening. Divided into small groups and with adult volunteers as their mentor-leaders, the children receive formation on a variety of diverse topics such as Scripture, the Sacraments, and virtues. They also spend time talking about hard topics that creep into their real lives- issues such as bullying, trauma, suffering, abuse, and forgiveness. With an emphasis on respect and care, the mentors help the children deal with turbulent emotions and life challenges. Discussions often involve what to do in the face of difficult choices, how to ward off behavioral issues, and how to develop a good character. By equipping the children with hands-on tools, they leave feeling prepared (or at least practiced) in the area of conflict resolution.
At the end of the formation time, the students move on to the final evening session: fun and games! Whether shooting hoops, moving pawns around a game board, or making rosaries as part of a service project, the children engage in healthy fellowship and friendships at every turn.
“For many of these kids, this program is transformational,” recognizes Fr. Israel. “If they don’t have something positive in their lives, they will go down the wrong path. The level of suffering and abuse that they endure… well, this is a place where they share and learn respect, boundaries, and forgiveness.”
Meeting young people where they’re at is a tried, trusted, and true way to evangelize. This Middle School Youth Program does just that in its intentional programming and, as a result, children feel welcomed and affirmed. Care and concern envelop them and are visible in the faces of the adult mentors. They learn to see themselves just as God sees them: as special and loved.
“We teach them to be good Christians,” reflect Fr. Israel. “They yearn to belong to something, so we invite them to join our gang – our Christian gang.”
With a mission like that, it’s safe to assume the program will continue to go gangbusters.