The word "brotherhood" is used a lot around St. Francis High School. The Athol Springs institution, steeped deep into Franciscan values, uses the term to describe the all-male student body. Where the teachers provide the education and the friars imbue the Franciscan values, it is up to the students themselves to support one another.
The school offers an Alverna Homeroom for 16 students - eight seniors and eight juniors. These kids, who represent a cross section of the school, involve themselves in organizing service projects, school liturgies, and everything else spiritual at the school. The students introduce themselves as leaders and big brothers to their classmates and serve in those roles until graduation. Started in 2004 by Father Michael Lasky, OFM Conv., Alverna was modeled after college peer ministry groups where students take charge of events that make a school Catholic, and also know who is in crisis or who needs help. The name comes from La Verna, the hill in Tuscanny where St. Francis received the stigmata.
"Functionally, they help plan and implement and execute any of the Catholic Franciscany things that happen on campus," explained Brother Nick Romeo, OFM Conv., campus minister and director of the Alvernans. "They do faith sharing and service stuff as a group."
When the student council organized Spirit Week, the Alvernans organized a charity dodgeball game to raise money for hurricane relief.
The students who join apply through a series of interviews, essays and recommendations. Brother Nick picks the students to form a cohesive, yet diverse group.
Zach Lewis, 16, joined this year after seeing the role the Alvernans played in the school during his first two years at St. Francis.
"I had Brother Nick freshman year and I saw the Alvernans coming in and out. They were role models for the entire school. And I just wanted to be a part of that," he said. "I wanted to be a role model for the freshmen and underclassmen, because I remember what it was like when I was a freshman. I wanted to be a role model for incoming freshmen and sophomores, anyone who needs a little bit of guidance."
As part of their Big Brother program, Alvernans show the freshmen around the school and introduce them to teachers. "We get them comfortable with being at St. Francis and being a part of the brotherhood," Lewis explained.
At the beginning of the school year, the incoming students attend a retreat led by the Alvernans, who wear their red Alverna shirts. The newcomers come to associate those faces with the role of an older, helping, guiding sibling, and recognized those faces throughout the year.
"I think that's very well planned that the first thing they do as a class as freshman on campus is a retreat," said Noah Unger, 16, one of the new group members. "Brother Nick is behind the scenes. During the day, it's the Alverna guys in the red shirts who you turn to. They're running things. They're reading, they're speaking at the opening Mass in the morning, they're leading prayer before the meal at lunch, and they're leading you through all your activities throughout the day. Even if you're not wearing that red shirt during the day, you still are. It's a metaphoric red shirt after leading them their first day, they turn to you throughout their freshman year, their sophomore year, until they are able to take on the same leadership role you did."
"There have been a few kids who have come up to me who I don't even know and they ask me questions and stuff," added Kevin Krawiec, 16, another new member.
For Unger, the leadership role allowed him to strengthen his faith.
"Today, I was able to become a Eucharistic minister, which was a big part of joining Alverna," he said. "Then the leadership. All the students look up to the Alvernans, because we're in a lot of the behind the scenes action. We're always doing something involving the school. We always try to make the St. Francis name proud."
The group does service projects alone and with Franciscan Youth Ministry group throughout the year, helping Catholic Charities and running food drives. They recently went on a Habitat For Humanity build in Buffalo. That was the first project of the year. It allowed the group members to get to know each other and give back to the community. The group has a "pay it forward" mentality in what they do.
"When we get to work with the people whose house we are helping to make and helping them to move into, it makes you feel lucky for what you have and gave me a sense of responsibility to return the favor and help them, and hopefully give them the same feeling," said Ty Syta, 17.