Parish ministry strives to reach youth ‘where they’re at’

Young people participate at one of the youth group activities at the Church of the Holy Family, Sewell. They include prayer nights, social events and service opportunities. “They need to see what the whole church is all about,” says Julie LaRosa, director of youth ministry.

Julie LaRosa, director of youth ministry at the Church of the Holy Family, will never forget a heart-warming letter she received from the parents of a middle-schooler in her program.

About nine years ago, when LaRosa first began working at the church, one young man who started attending quickly became involved in all the ministry’s events.

“He had a lot of energy, and I just kind of didn’t think anything of it,” LaRosa said. “I just kind of thought we have to figure out how to harness this and use it. And he would progressively sign up for anything we had coming up. … He was the one kid [who] was always there, always signing up. I gave him a lot of responsibility, because as I knew him over the years, I could see his potential and things like that.

“A few years into it I had come to find out that this young man, his mother had written a letter to his pastor at the time, and her son had kind of been written off by everybody, schools — even people at the parish had kind of written him off — and it was such a heart-warming letter,” she recalled. “She had written [that] me coming in not having any pre-conceived notions about her son just allowed [him] to really embrace everything that we had.”

LaRosa still keeps the letter in her office and becomes emotional whenever she reads it, she said.

Since that early success story, the youth ministry program at the Sewell parish has developed and offered several programs connecting youth, from grades 5 through 12, to the full life of the church.

“I feel like for the young people, they need to see what the whole church is all about, all the different things,” LaRosa explained. “Because we’re reminded constantly as adults that we’re all created differently, God has a plan for each of us. It’s the same for the young people. So having them have the opportunity to experience as many things and as many practices — as many traditions that the church has — it’s only for their benefit. Because then they can figure out where they’re being called.”

Occasionally, there are separate events for grades 5 through 8, known as “Genesis,” and grades 9 through 12, named “Ablaze.” But LaRosa says she tries to bring all the youth together as much as possible.

One of the programs is a rosary group — held every Tuesday night from 6 to 7 p.m. — where the youth take turns leading the rosary, select a Marian reflection hymn for the evening and gather for fellowship afterward.

Once a month, the young people are invited to a youth Mass followed by a community dinner at the parish hall. First Fridays of the month are devoted to movie nights.

The youth also participate in “Peanut Butter and Jelly Club” — meeting on random Saturday mornings to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bring them to the Cathedral Kitchen in Camden — an effort for which they won the Disciple of Mercy Award last year.

And for a week during the summer, the young people attend a program called Community Connection — where they cook together, pray as a group, discuss different aspects of Catholic social justice, and serve the needy at local sites — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day.

LaRosa has also established a grief support ministry for young people who have suffered losses in their families, sending cards and inviting them to attend brunches with other youth who are going through the same experience.

LaRosa organizes the ministry so that each event is a “stand-alone” experience, she said.

“If the youth comes to just that night, they’re still going to get a great experience,” LaRosa said. “But I always open the door to invite them back.

“Whether or not they come to every event we have, whether they come just to rosary group or a service event or the peanut butter and jelly club, whether or not they just get a birthday card from us, they’re still important,” she added. “They’re all the same. They’re all important on the same level, and it’s our job to just reach them where they’re at.”

Amanda Woods is a writer from Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish in Brooklawn, New York.