Youth Department brings program to parishes

Thu, Aug 7th 2014 02:00 pm

Young Christians are still, hard at work.

After more than 20 years as a diocesan-wide event, the service program known as Young Christians at Work has moved to a parish-based version. However, the focus and lessons, remain the same.

The Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, which sponsors the program, felt the old version, held annually during Holy Week, wasn't reaching enough teens due to school and vacation conflicts. They were also limited to using worksites available during that week. The new version allows young volunteers to visit missions and soup kitchens in their own neighborhoods. Young Christians will work in the Dunkirk/Fredonia area for the first time in late August.

"There are needs in all communities so we're hoping to use Young Christians to open more teens eyes to social justice and the need for compassionate service," said Sarah Leahy, ministry development coordinator for the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

The new program kicked off July 29 at St. Joseph-University Parish in Buffalo, with a dozen teens preparing lunch at the nearby St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen and doing some summer cleaning for the Felician sisters at Villa Maria Convent.

Young Christians have been visiting the de Paul soup kitchen for decades. There the teens stock shelves, prepare food and serve the guests.  

"We served 300 people. I got to see most of them when they came up," said Ryan Hayter, 16. "It made me upset a little bit, seeing so many people who needed to have their food provided for them that way."

Most of the people he saw seemed middle-aged, some looked like they could have been homeless.

"There were some families there, which made me really upset, seeing little children there. It's disheartening to see 4-year-old children having to have their food provided like that. It made my heart sink," Hayter said.

Ruthie Hewson, 15, sat at the door handing out tokens to the visitors. Guests of the soup kitchen use these tokens to "pay" for their meals. One per customer. They also receive loaves of bread to take home.

"I was sitting near the door, so I got to see everyone as they were coming in and welcome them, then say goodbye as they were leaving," she said. "There were several families. There was a family of four, and it looked like all the children were under the age of 10. Some of them were disabled, but most of them just looked like they hit a bump in life and needed help."

St. Vincent De Paul Society director Mark Zirnheld welcomed the teens and explained the mission of the society. They also learned the kitchen gets busier at the end of the month, when people run out of food stamps.

"It was a little disheartening to see the families with children there, but it was kind of enlightening to know that I was helping out, and all the smiles and thank yous I would get from the people made me feel better, but it was still hard to see all the people going there," said Peter Ciotta, 14. "Almost every person said thank you."

At Villa, teens like Zack Stockman cleaned wheelchairs for the elderly sisters in the convent health center.  He also sat with the sisters as they shared their stories. One sister worked as a typist for the pope for about 20 years. A 102-year-old sister had taught one of the other sisters, who is now 65.

"It felt good to wash and benefit their lives. We've touched the heart of them," the 14-year-old said.

St. Joseph-University Parish used a one-day model of the Young Christians program. Two-and-a-half day- and four-day models are also available.

"I think it went really well," said Leahy. "To see all of them exposed to Catholic Social Teaching as a new concept, I think it went really well. They were a great group. The worksites really provided very interactive experiences for us, so that was nice."

The teens shared their thoughts with their parents and others during a closing prayer service.

"Words like 'humbled' and 'grateful' and 'I really didn't think of things this way before' came up, so I think it went well," said Leahy.

The goal of Young Christians is to engage teens in community service while learning about social justice. The program teaches youth to think critically about breakdowns in society, and how Catholicism calls us to respond in light of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

Young Christians is open to all parishes and schools, and can be customized to fit the individual needs. Upcoming programs will take place at Harvest House, hosted by St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, and Pioneer Camp for the freshman, sophomore and junior classes of Mount St. Mary Academy. Service projects will be carried out at the campsite. One class will bake lasagnas for soup kitchens, another will make fleece tie blankets for the homeless to be delivered to different shelters. Yet, others will make dignity bags with toothpaste, shampoo and soap for St. Luke's Mission of Mercy.

The Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry will provide leaders and team members to help with discussions and chaperoning. The parish is responsible for the facility and food.

To book a Young Christians program or for more information, contact Sarah Leahy at 716-847-8795 or A list of upcoming dates can be found at


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