Thursday, July 7, 2016
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
Photography: CRISTINA CABRERA | FC
MIAMI GARDENS | Compassion, mercy and justice: They form the core of Catholic social teaching and are pinnacle elements of living the faith.
Last month, they became more than words for a select group of high school students, who explored those virtues and more at St. Thomas University’s first theological summer institute for youths.
STU Impact: Empowering Young Disciples, gathered about 40 students from Miami-Dade, Broward and other counties at the archdiocesan university’s campus June 17-24. The week combined a theology camp with service learning and civic engagement in the community.
The program was made possible by the Lilly Endowment’s Theology Institutes for High School Youth Initiative. Its grant, worth over $500,000, laid the foundation for future STU Impact programs. This year, all attendees were given full scholarships covering the cost of registration, room and board, all meals and more.
Jennifer Kryszak, STU Impact program manager, said she and her staff reached out to every parish and school across the Archdiocese of Miami and Florida.
“We reached out to the parishes trying to get parishes focused on getting the youth here,” said Kryszak. “Catholic high school students obviously get a lot of theology within Catholic high schools, so we were really trying to get the public high school students here, especially some of the less well-off parishes since we were fully funded for this year.”
Living on campus
Students lived on campus for eight days. For many, it was their first time away from home and they admitted they were hesitant about bonding with strangers.
“I told my mom the night that I got here that she was probably going to have to come back tomorrow to pick me up,” said Nicole Czubkowski, a student at Archbishop Edward McCarthy High in Southwest Ranches. She shared her testimony at the closing Mass for STU Impact.
“I did not really know anyone here and I felt very uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m a very happy and outgoing person and I like to talk to people, but I’m also very shy when I don’t know people. So since I didn’t know any of you, I couldn’t talk to you, and since I couldn’t talk to you, I wasn’t very happy about that.”
With time, the assistance of camp counselors and a few goofy icebreakers, Nicole and the other students realized there was nothing to be shy about.
“We came here as individuals and all on our own and now we’re leaving as a team and as a family,” said Nicole.
The students bonded over their interests and even their insecurities. During the theologically focused parts of the day, students learned from scholars and presenters who shared their perspectives on God, Jesus, and the Catholic faith.
“They were all extremely prepared, but at the same time they were able to engage with the age group,” said Sister Ondina Cortes, a Claretian Missionary who teaches practical theology at St. Thomas and serves as director of STU Impact. “We started with what is God’s vision for the world in the Old Testament, and what is Jesus’ vision or dream for the world in the New Testament, and then how that needs to become a reality through our service, through our willingness to help out.”
Combining classroom learning with civic engagement provided students with the opportunity to engage hands-on with the virtues they had explored in the classroom.
For many, prior to STU Impact, community service went as far as helping out in soup kitchens or collecting clothes and food for the poor. Eyes were opened when the group travelled to places like the beach for a clean-up, and then to Immokalee to help at a shelter.
“You never really think of the people that don’t have a lot,” said Paula Ceballos, a student at STU Impact. “We have all of this. So it was really an eye-opening experience for a lot of us to see what a lot of us don’t have and what we should be grateful for.”
Sparked a fire
Paula said the experience sparked a fire to make a difference, one that will help her and the other students as they prepare service-justice learning projects to implement in their home community or parish.
“You have to take the risk to step up to the plate and do what you have to do,” Paula said.
For Sofia Rodriguez, a graduate of Paladin Academy and parishioner at Our Lady of the Lakes in Miami Lakes, STU Impact provided a more concrete road map for how to make a difference in the lives of people with speech disorders and depression.
A near drowning experience at the age of 4 left her with a speech impediment, one that she was often bullied for and which led her towards depression. But despite her struggles, she remains resilient.
“I know that God gave his toughest battle to his strongest soldier,” Sofia said.
While participating in her youth group, she was asked to speak about her journey at a retreat. That’s where she came to believe that God was calling her to share her story with others.
“I think that was the first step that God was calling my name to speak out,” Sofia said. “I did it. I was nervous, but I did it. And then this was the second calling to get closer. He has a purpose for me. He has a plan for me. My job wasn’t done yet. That’s why he wanted me to live.”
Sofia said she dreams of one day sharing her experience at a TED Talks. The nonprofit records and shares talks covering all subjects in more than 110 languages.
Though Sofia is aging out of STU Impact, she said she hopes to return as a camp counselor. “When I came here, I was like ‘God is telling me something.’ I don’t know what it is. I had a feeling. But now I think I know what I want to do.”
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