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Students at several schools in Diocese of Metuchen serve Church, less fortunate through pilot program

By Christina Leslie


An ongoing collaboration between representatives in five parochial schools in the diocese and Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen, is offering these young future leaders of the Church the opportunity to put their faith and philanthropy into action.

The Catholic Charities Junior Board pilot program has been serving to engage the students, one service project at a time, to embrace the principles of respect, empowerment, creativity and quality that serve as cornerstones of the nonprofit organization.

Ellen F. Ayoub, superintendent, diocesan Office of Schools, suggested the idea of a partnership with Catholic Charities when she was asked to serve on the entity's board. The program was set into motion at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year and involves students from St. Bartholomew School, East Brunswick; St. Augustine of Canterbury School, Kendall Park; St. Francis Cathedral School, Metuchen; St. Stanislaus Kostka School, Sayreville, and St. James School, Woodbridge.

"The children do a lot of fundraisers for a wide variety of causes, and the diocese vets the charities for them," Ayoub explained. "I thought it would be a good idea to just go through Catholic Charities… it's a great chance to bring the children into the fold early." The schools' service groups, clubs and classes are helmed by different faculty in each school, Ayoub said, and each school focuses upon another service organization under the Catholic Charities umbrella, such as the Ozanam Family Shelter, Edison, or Naomi's Way, a shelter for women and children in New Brunswick.

"We wanted to increase awareness of Catholic Charities and create opportunities for the children to see how the Church serves the world, and we as Catholics serve the Church," Ayoub said.

Marianne Majewski, executive director, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen, stated, "The formation of the Catholic Charities Junior Board is an affirmation that the younger generation is the future of our Church. Participation in the Junior Board will serve to bring social justice and Catholic social teaching to life for young people in a way that is real and concrete."

Shared Mission

Each school participating in the Catholic Charities Junior Board is employing their unique programs and viewpoints while holding steady to the Catholic message of social justice for all.

Katy McAndrew, a guidance counselor at St. Bartholomew School, oversees a leadership development program for the middle school students, which now partners with Catholic Charities' Junior Board.

"I really liked bringing social justice issues more to the local level," she said. "The kids are passionate about them on a global level, but didn't know the effects locally." Roughly 50 members from grades six through eight have engaged their fellow students in a dress-down day, Christmas card sale, "Penny Wars" coin collection and a toy collection destined for the Ozanam Family Shelter. A lock-in retreat with social justice topics and a simulation to illustrate poverty and literacy access are also planned.

"This is when our mission comes alive," stated McAndrew. "It is great to get the whole school excited." The St. Augustine of Canterbury Junior Board members, with advisor and language arts/religion teacher, Ana Vega, engage the entire school community to keep Catholic Charities projects at the forefront. Ongoing collections of baby care items and women's work attire for mothers returning to the workforce benefit Naomi's Way clients.

In addition, the school's partnership with Catholic Charities' "Little Flower Project" creates awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis and its effect on children. Prayers for refugees, an in-school pilgrimage and links for parents to resource information will involve all members of the parish and school family.

Vega explained, "We are called to live out our faith by serving the poor and vulnerable, upholding the dignity of human life and becoming disciples who bring about justice." Proceeds from Christmas card sales and other fundraisers in the St. Francis Cathedral School community also have benefitted Naomi's Way. Barbara Stevens, principal, also leads its service learning club of nine seventh-grade students.

Echoing the twin tenets of social justice and charitable works, which are hallmarks of Catholic Charities, Stevens noted, "We are becoming immersed. This gets down to the nitty gritty." She plans to have the children present what they have learned as Junior Board members to their parents and fellow students.

"[The program] heightens awareness of the needs of people in our country, in our own state," Stevens said. "It's just an introduction, and it might make an impact on them a couple years later." St. Stanislaus Kostka School fourthgrade teacher Lisa Grover advises the religion club's 22 students, now Junior Board members, who meet twice weekly. They are often assisted in projects by the 16 members of the school's student council, led by fi f t h -grade teacher Lori Hodder.

Grover noted the school's Christmastime toy drive, intended for the Ozanam Family Shelter, engaged the students "at recess, after school, during the club and on their own time. It was lovely." "Two of my fourth-graders," she added, "whose grandmothers taught them to sew, made home-sewn pillows and blankets for the residents." The greatest impact of the pilot program, Grover continued, was "we showed them the poor are not just overseas, but right here. The more the kids find out about [Catholic Charities], the more they get deeper into it. We hope to take the rest of the children there to help out, for it will make it more real, and show the shelter residents there are people who care." Maureen Jorgensen, co-moderator of the St. James School student council, guides a group of seven eighth-grade students in charitable works. Her Junior Board members plan fundraisers and donations to benefit the Ozanam and Naomi's Way shelters. A recent project involved collecting common household items, decorating the donations boxes with the message "Welcome Home from St. James School," and donating them to the families leaving the shelter for their new homes.

"The kids need to understand people are in this situation for different reasons," Jorgensen said. "Someone might have suffered a catastrophic illness or lost a job. These are people just like us. As Catholics and Christians, we have an obligation to share what we have," she continued. "Through this encounter, we hope they will gain understanding."

Room to Grow

As the project unfolds, Ayoub will invite Kim Chorba, director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, to address the students to talk about advocacy.

"It's not enough that we feel good doing these things, but how it impacts the kids to understand how [Catholic Charities clients] got there, the challenges they face and the economic and social justice issues," she said.

At the conclusion of the pilot phase in May, Ayoub will invite representatives from each of the five schools to a presentation where they will describe their service projects, what they have learned and how the process has strengthened their faith. The audience will consist of parents, fellow students, "even people from our Catholic high schools to show what their future students are like," she said.

Ayoub hopes to grow the program and plans to invite another five schools to b e come Catholic Charities Junior Board members during the next school year. "When kids leave our Catholic schools, we want them to have a Catholic world view through the prism of social justice to serve their fellow man," she said.

"Catholic Charities hopes to foster an understanding of poverty and social justice issues by providing opportunities for the Junior Board to help our neighbors and hear their stories," Majewski said. "As their faith comes alive through these experiences, we hope going forward that each child will continue to help those less fortunate and embrace volunteerism as a way of life."

Students in the Service Learning Club at St. Francis Cathedral School, Metuchen, are among those from five institutions in the diocese participating in the Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen, Junior Board pilot program.

— photo courtesy of St. Francis Cathedral School

Above, students at St. Stanislaus Kostka School, Sayreville, wrap some of the 101 Christmas presents donated by the parochial institution to the Ozanam Shelter in Edison. Right, at St. Augustine of Canterbury School, Kendall Park, students prepare seasonal decorations for children whose families receive assistance from Catholic Charities. Below, students from the Service Learning Club at St. James School, Woodbridge, listen to Ellen F. Ayoub, superintendent, diocesan Office of Schools.

photos courtesy of St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Augustine of Canterbury and St. James schools

The National Junior Honor Society at St. Bartholomew School, East Brunswick, bought 24 gifts as well as send a check with an additional donation to the Ozanam Shelter in Edison.

photo courtesy of St. Bartholomew School

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