Despite limits, Rochester Diocese schools prioritize service
In December 2017, students from St. Kateri School invited local senior citizens to visit the Irondequoit school for a Christmas Tea. During this event, which quickly became a beloved annual tradition, students in preschool through fifth grade performed Christmas songs for the seniors, spent time talking with them and presented them with small gifts.
By the fall of 2020, the school’s staff and parent-teacher association knew the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent them from hosting their traditional Christmas Tea, yet they remained committed to the idea of showing love for the senior citizens in their community at Christmastime, noted Terri Morgan, principal at St. Kateri School. They decided that if they couldn’t invite seniors into the school for the Christmas Tea, they would just have to bring the Christmas Tea to the seniors, she added.
Each of St. Kateri’s 137 students decorated a bag, then went “shopping” in the school’s art room, where several tables were filled with candies and other small gifts that had been donated by school families.
“They thought about what their senior might want. Then they went around and picked out fun things they could put in their bag,” Morgan said.
The filled bags were delivered to seniors in the community, some of whom were so happy that they cried tears of joy, Morgan said. The service project was well worth the extra effort it took to plan and carry out, she added.
“I think it’s important for (the students) to learn to serve their community and think of someone else besides themselves,” she said. “Part of our mission is to be Christ for others. … Wrapped up into that is that actual, authentic hands-on helping.”
Community service has always been a priority in local Catholic schools, and the global pandemic has not changed that, although it has changed the ways in which that service is carried out.
“It has been challenging to find service opportunities, because our past service has been in the community working with the public. Many of the organizations and groups we worked with have suspended or are not allowing outside visitors or volunteers,” remarked Suzy Pohorence, middle-school math teacher at St. Mary School in Canandaigua.
Although lining up service projects has been challenging during the pandemic, teaching children how to serve others is as important now as it ever has been, said Pohorence, who coordinates service projects for St. Mary’s middle-school grades.
“If we can get students started in serving their communities at an early age, reinforce the purpose of serving and allow students to reflect on the experience, then I feel students are able to connect themselves as disciples doing what Christ has asked us to do: Love our neighbors and understand that we are all capable of helping someone, no matter how small the act,” she said.
Last spring, Pohorence started a Sewing and Service Club at St. Mary’s, but two weeks later the club’s work was halted suddenly when the pandemic forced schools to close. The club members took up their needles again in November and made blankets for children at Bethany House in Rochester, as well as yarn hat ornaments that were donated to the VA Hospital in Canandaigua. Club members will meet again in the spring to work on quilts that will be donated to people in need.
“Our projects not only teach students to sew but give us an opportunity to safely perform community service because our items can be dropped off to a collection site, and they can easily sanitize,” Pohorence said.
The Sewing and Service club helps students develop a sense of pride from knowing they can make a difference, even during stressful times, and connects them to Catholic social teachings, she added.
Students at All Saints Academy also have been able to take pride in their efforts to help the Corning community, noted Principal Mary Ann Lacey. This year, the school was able to carry on its longstanding tradition of involving students in a different service project each month during the school year. In October, the students and their families brought in new face masks, which were donated to Catholic Charities of Steuben County. In December, they collected hats, gloves and scarves for the Salvation Army, and in November, they collected nearly 400 pounds of food for a local food pantry, Lacey said.
All Saints’ faculty members never really considered suspending these monthly service projects, because they want to give back to a community that has been supportive of the school over the years. Participating in these projects also helps students understand that they are a part of the community and have an important role in it, Lacey said.
“This is a way for them to still feel a part of everything, because so much has been cut off,” she said. “It’s also teaching them that this is part of our belief and our faith.”