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Missionaries of the future: ‘Where faith meets with service’

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Thursday, October 7, 2010
By David Eck 
ARCHDIOCESE — At an age when most high school seniors don’t even know what careers they want to pursue, much less how they can serve others throughout their lives, Zach Starkey is an exception.

The soft-spoken senior at La Salle High School wants to study medicine so he can help the sick and injured, primarily in developing worlds. His goal is to become a physician and work with Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization that provides care to people whose lives are in danger, without regard to political or religious beliefs.
La Salle students and supporters on a mission trip to Peru
La Salle students and supporters on a mission trip to Peru in 2010. From left, Drew Otten, Doug Grawe, Kerrie Lech, Julie Rosing, Andrew Stienmetz,  Mike Chadwick, Ryan Gundlach, Zach Starkey, Mike Frerick, Matt Tuchfarber, Mark Specker, Sam Wanstrath and Ike Placke. (Courtesy photo)
His passion for service has blossomed in high school, Starkey said, and he wants to tie his career to it. He credits the service opportunities at La Salle for his commitment to mission work.
“I know I’m doing good, but the biggest part of it is interaction with other people. I like to affect someone’s life in a positive way,” he said. “I just think it’s part of who I am. I see it as what I should be doing.”
Starkey, a parishioner at St. James the Greater Parish in White Oak, spent a week studying and working at a school in Peru as part of a La Salle immersion trip this past summer, and participated in a La Sallian youth gathering in Memphis in 2009. That session was geared toward leadership and doing service in the southern United States.
The experience in Peru was eye opening, particularly the poverty. The conditions in which the people live strengthened Starkey’s resolve to dedicate his skills and training to those who most need them.
“There was this moment when we saw a woman picking up trash out of a garbage heap, and that was more than likely her food,” he said. “It really just showed me that even though she’s thousands of miles away from where I am, we’re still connected and that I should do something to help.”
La Salle usually offers students the opportunity for a summer mission trip to Honduras, but this year arranged a trip to a school in Peru because of political instability and safety issues in Honduras. The young men from La Salle interacted with students at a La Sallian school in Peru; the Cincinnati students mentored and tutored their Peruvian counterparts. The idea was to give the Cincinnati students the opportunity to do educational service, said Chris Winiarski, director of campus ministry at La Salle.
The relationship has spawned an opportunity for Peruvian students to visit Cincinnati in 2012 as part of an outreach program. The visitors will interact with La Salle students, attend classes and participate in extra-curricular activities.
“As part of these immersion trips that we offer, we really try and structure them in a way that offers our students the opportunity to build relationships with people in developing worlds,” Winiarski said. “That’s where faith meets with service, in those relationships that are formed.”
Immersion trips have a lasting impact on students and cause them to look at things differently. The experience forces them to expand their view of the world, Winiarski said.
“They’re encountering people and cultures they never knew existed and [that] challenges them to think about their world in a different light,” he explained. “I think it causes them to be a little bit more grateful or thankful for what they have. In the same breath it [hopefully] causes them to act a little more responsibly in regards to their God-given gifts and talents and use the blessings they’ve had in life to help other people.”
That’s the message high school teachers and campus ministers want to share with their students by exposing them to the many needs in their cities, country and abroad. Schools in all parts of the diocese sponsor immersion and service trips to various cities across the United States and around the world.
Students have helped build houses and public buildings, repaired furniture, worked at orphanages and schools and helped doctors treat the injured and ill. During a trip to Mexico this past summer, a group of students from Moeller High School helped dig a septic tank for a primitive house.
“Just to go down there and see the people living off so little, it’s really just a completely different world,” said A.J. Eckhoff, a Moeller senior and parishioner at St. Margaret of York Parish. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. What I take from that is a better grip on life and a better respect for the people down there.”
Regardless of the location, school or work that is being done, the goal is to instill in students a life-long commitment to service. The immersion trips are designed to form missionaries of the future.
“It’s not just a week of service abroad and now we’re done. Let’s bring back what we learned and what we gained and serve our local communities,” said Kelli Kinnear, director of mission and service at Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton. “Our hope is that our kids who do mission trips [will] come back and they’ll continue that. That passion will be incited in them.”
Chaminade-Julienne senior Tyler Rohrer
Chaminade-Julienne senior Tyler Rohrer interacts with children from Belize during a summer mission trip in 2010. (Courtesy photo) 
Chaminade-Julienne students spent a week this summer working in Belize. They helped doctors on the trip in small clinics set up in the mountains. The students also helped with construction. In the past, Chaminade-Julienne students have served in Trinidad, Guatemala and Mexico. The school also sponsors service trips to urban Cincinnati and rural Indiana.
The Belize trip left a lasting impression on Maggie Ryan, a Chaminade-Julienne senior and parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton. The experience strengthened her commitment to others.
“Going there, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” Ryan said. “It broadened my whole horizon about what’s going on in the world, and now I can actually make a difference. I actually now want to start an organization or I want to start something to help people less fortunate than me.”
Nicolette Johnson, a Chaminade Julienne senior and parishioner at Precious Blood Parish in Dayton, recalled how she offered a Belize boy a bottle of fresh water. The boy relished the drink, kept the bottle and brought it back the next day. Johnson was pleased that her action provided the boy with fresh water for two days.
Those first trips tend to ignite the teens’ passion, teachers and administrators said. The students see the impact service can have and they want to continue it.
“The feeling you get when you go and you’re helping these people isn’t like anything else,” said Tyler Rohrer, a senior at Chaminade-Julienne and a parishioner at Holy Angels in Dayton. “You know the feeling…and you want to keep going with that. It’s not something you want just once in a lifetime.”
Students often use the experience to create their own service projects locally, such as tutoring elementary students or working on housing for the poor. They work on a need they feel drawn toward, said Brian Gilronan, director of community service at Moeller High School.
Moeller High School students spent a week in Piedras Negras, Mexico
Moeller High School students spent a week in Piedras Negras, Mexico, helping to build a house for brothers Manuel and Pepe. The students, all seniors, pose for a photo at the construction site. From left, Dominic Geraci, Connor Morgan, David Schmitt, Charles Walter, Manuel, AJ Eckhoff, John Westerkamp, Jimmy Schirmer and Pepe. (Courtesy photo)
“They have a desire to connect with other people besides themselves, and I think really bring a back a good spirit of service and a great example to others,” Gilronan said. “It gives them that spark to help others when they get back here because there’s certainly a lot of need in Cincinnati. You can find the need anywhere.”
As those students move on to college, Moeller notifies their college campus ministry of their service activity in high school so the interest in service is continually fostered, Gilronan said.
The impact of the service trips can also be seen in the classroom as teachers work the experiences into class discussions.
“You talk about it a lot. It shows up in the context of class,” said Geoffrey Girard, a Moeller English teacher who has led three trips to Mexico. “Most of what you do in English class, you’re talking about made-up people, made-up things. [This is] a true story that can you can use to bridge fiction to reality.”
For several years each summer, students from Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati have taken a mission trip to Jamaica, working in a home for troubled boys. Nine girls and two chaperones made the trip this year.
Students say the experience helps them appreciate what they have and  enables them understand what’s really important in their lives. They became more sensitive to the needs of others.
Most of all, the students say, their faith was strengthened.
“It made me realize how much God has provided for me and how He’s given me family and friends. He’s also given the boys in Jamaica people that care about them,” said Lizzie Miller, a junior at Mercy and member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Cincinnati. “They can share their friendliness and their spirit of God and their spirit of love with us, and we can share that with them. We can feed off of each other.”
Mercy teachers who lead the trips are also encouraged to incorporate the lessons in their classes by using anecdotal stories.
“Our hope is [students] will start seeing more of what is happening in their own backyard that is impacted because of issues they have experienced,” said Johanna Becker, campus minister at Mercy. “We’re trying to get them to realize your faith, your work in life and our relationships with other people are all interconnected. I think it’s very important because they are making huge decisions about where the direction of their life is going to go.”
Ken Laake, an Elder High School religion teacher, has been part of a group that takes medical mission trips to Honduras. Headed up by Elder graduate Dr. Richard Fry, the team includes recent Elder and Seton high school graduates. They set up clinics to treat the poor and have delivered babies, helped treat gunshot victims, implanted pacemakers and treated people with life-threatening diseases. The students can see the impact their work has on others. After the students’ first trip, they want to go again.
“It’s a great experience for anybody who has any kind of medical aspirations,” Laake said. “They learn something about themselves. For our students, it’s a welcome to the big world.”
A culture of service permeates area Catholic high schools. That spirit catches students and challenges them to give of themselves and grow. In some cases, it’s a newfound compassion for others.
“It’s definitely very rooted in La Salle,” Starkey said. “Up though eighth grade I never really felt that call to serve, but it’s emphasized so much here that it’s resonated with me and has really struck a chord with me, so I want to continue that.”
To enhance its trips, La Salle turns to alumni who were active in the service trips as students. These young adult leaders help the high school students prepare for  and accompany them on the trips. The alumni are also active in meetings leading up to the trips.
“We decided to bring those alumni back to help the high school students live and understand their faith,” Winiarski said. “It’s been very, very positive for those young adult leaders as well as for those high school students.”
The young adult leaders — who have been out of high school at least a year and apply to participate in the program — share their faith and perspective with the high school students. The goal is for La Salle students to understand that mission work gives a sense of value and faith that connects them with those on the edges of society and world development.
“I think we’re planting seeds in these service immersion trips, but we’re also cultivating some of the seeds that their parents planted many years ago and are instilling in them the values of faith,” Winiarski said. “Hopefully, at the very basic level, that’s what we’re doing — planting seeds in these students to help them realize that their Catholic Christian faith calls them to be of service to those who are marginalized.”
David Eck can be reached at deck@catholiccincinnati.org.
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