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Missionaries of the future: Grade schools teach students to live as Jesus did

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

ARCHDIOCESE — “That’s all I hear about in this school is Jesus.”
When Kathy Borchers, assistant principal at Bishop Leibold School in Dayton, recently heard a kindergartner utter those words, “It warmed my heart,” she said, because “we want our students to live their lives as Jesus did, to serve others as He served them.”

When a 5-year-old demonstrates such awareness, Borchers knows the school is accomplishing its goal of preparing children for lives of service from an early age.

Franciscan Brother Rodrigo Peret
Franciscan Brother Rodrigo Peret visits with students at St. John the Baptist School in Harrison. (Courtesy photo)

One way Bishop Leibold School promotes mission awareness among the students is through a partnership with Our Lady of Nazareth (OLN) School in Nairobi, Kenya, initiated three years ago via contact with Marianist Brother Don Neff. BLSSNGS (Bishop Leibold School Sharing in Needed Global Service for Nairobi), is a school wide, student-led service learning project through which the Dayton youngsters have been able to support their counterparts in a variety of ways. These include the “Nickels for Nairobi” student donation program, funds raised through the sale of a school cookbook, proceeds from special mission and school spirit days, individual student projects and a Nairobi family night.
“Daily prayers for the students and staff at Our Lady of Nazareth School are also a big part of what we do, along with exchanging pictures and letters,” Borchers added.
Most of the school’s mission and service projects, including BLSSNGS, are organized by the Leibold Leaders, she said. Comprised of students in grades five through eight, the volunteer organization is geared toward creating lifelong learners and service-oriented citizens and promoting service within the school and community.
“As the students meet, they talk about people and issues in the community and beyond,” Borchers explained. “They talk about the needs they see. It makes them think about what’s happening outside their own little world. If we can get them to think that way, they’ll be better people. That’s what a leader is — someone who doesn’t just think of himself, but about what’s good for all people.”
Developing leaders with that mindset is also at the heart of the mission education program at Our Lady of the Visitation School in Cincinnati, overseen by Benedictine Sister Mary Tewes, director of religious education.

Established in the late 80s, the school-wide effort involves each grade level, from kindergarten on up, identifying a specific project they would like to work on during the year. The teachers coordinate with the students to select a project, then let Sister Mary know of their intentions by Mission Sunday. At the end of the school year, she provides them with a report on the outcome of their efforts.
Some of the projects end up involving the entire school; others are contained within a particular class. The first graders, for example, collect items for a food pantry in Price Hill; the third graders raise funds for the Cooperative for Education, which supplies textbooks and other educational resources to Guatemalan children; and the fifth graders have supported Heifer International. In addition, the eighth graders involved the whole school in support of the Haiti relief effort after January’s devastating earthquake, and all of the students participate in Operation Rice Bowl during Lent. Each teacher also has a box for mission assistance on a prayer table in his or classroom for the students to make small donations, Sister Mary said.
She believes involving even the smaller children in such projects is beneficial because it, “gives them an awareness of other people and the importance of sharing their resources with others. They realize how many needs there are and how even the little things that they can do really make a difference to others. When we receive thank-you notes from the organizations that we’ve supported, they realize that people are grateful for what they do.”
Another way students at Our Lady of the Visitation develop a penchant for serving others is through the ACT (Association of Catholic Teenage Services) program, directed by Bill Tonnis, youth/pastoral minister. A majority of the school’s eighth graders are involved in the service group and participate regularly in local outreach activities, from visiting nursing home residents to working at a soup kitchen.
“It helps them to grow,” Sister Mary said. “At confirmation, I tell the junior-high kids that they’re being confirmed to serve, to go and work for the good of others.”

Shirley Bihr, who teaches at St. John the Baptist School in Harrison, also strives to share this message with her junior-high students. Since the late 90s, the seventh and eighth graders in Bihr’s religion classes have been involved in a cultural exchange with students in two landless camps in Brazil, while also supporting the work of Franciscan Brother Rodrigo Peret, who ministers there. The relationship was established with the assistance of Fred Cain, then a Franciscan missioner.
To help build bonds between her students and the Brazilian youngsters, Bihr said she has tried to find things that the young people have in common. Because of the language barrier, artistic endeavors have been particularly successful. The students have exchanged drawings of their homes, how they celebrate Christmas and Easter and what they want to be when they grow up, and have also learned to pray in each other’s languages. In addition, both Brother Rodrigo and Cain have visited St. John the Baptist School to speak with the students and participate in hunger banquets with them as a means of demonstrating the inequities in the world.
In 2005 Bihr visited the camps in Brazil with six of her former students on a trip through the Franciscans Network. “When my kids walked into those camps and everyone saw each other, it made things real for them,” she said. ”It brought tears to many eyes.”
Through her efforts with the students, Bihr said, “I hope they learn to treat everyone with respect and kindness. I just think it’s really important that they know our Christian family is bigger than Harrison and Ohio and the United States, that the family of God stretches around the world. I want them to understand that we’re all God’s children and have the same desires and dreams. Wherever they go or wherever they are in life, I hope they take that with them.”

Sister Eileen Connelly can be reached at [email protected].

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