Jericha Elwell is out to clear up what she feels is a big myth — that young people don’t need church involvement once they hit their teen years.
"That’s the time of life when you’re really growing — spiritually, emotionally and mentally. That’s when we’re becoming adults," said Jericha, 16. "Some people think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m confirmed, it’s over,’ when really it’s just the beginning."
Jericha belongs to Church of St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, where she said few opportunities for teens were available in the recent past. But that lack was addressed head on in 2008, when the parish launched a youth-ministry program.
"I’m having a great time with it. It’s amazing," said Jericha, who serves as teen president of the youth group’s leadership team.
The program, which just reached its one-year anniversary in April, features a nice range of spiritual, social and service activities for youths ages 12 to 18. Jenine Cleary, volunteer youth minister, said approximately 40 families are active, with 10 to 20 youths typically attending an event.
Cleary said the youth group’s origins can be traced back to a stewardship fair in early 2008, when St. Mary Our Mother parishioners were implored to volunteer for various ministries. Somewhat impulsively — "It was sort of an out-of-body experience," she remarked — Cleary volunteered to take charge of a youth group if one was allowed to form, figuring that "my kids are in seventh and eight grade so I’ve got at least two (members)," she recalled, laughing.
Cleary got the go-ahead from Father Christopher Linsler, pastor of St. Mary Our Mother. Then Poppy Elwell, Jericha’s mom, joined on as co-youth minister, and additional support came from such adults as Barbara Matterazzo, the parish’s faith-formation administrator. Just like that, the group was off and running.
"We just had all these ideas that just came flowing," Jericha said.
Initial events included a kick-off meeting and pizza-and-game night. The youth group staffed a booth at the parish festival, and Cleary noted that seven or eight youths attended the diocesan Junior High Youth Rally.
"I thought that was pretty neat, because none of them had ever attended a diocesan thing," she said.
Summertime brought healthy turnouts for an overnight lock-in and a day at Darien Lake. The group formed a leadership team in the fall and made an impressive showing at a World Youth Sunday liturgy in October, filling such roles as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, lectors and ushers. Meanwhile, Jericha addressed the congregation for five minutes and introduced youth-group members. Cleary said it was vital for parishioners to witness these actions — "seeing the faces of what it’s all about."
A caroling session highlighted the Christmas season, and during Lent a small prayer group met weekly and focused on such subjects as church rituals, Stations of the Cross and rosary making. More recently, the youth group held a first-anniversary party on April 18.
Cleary observed that her own children — Daniel, 14, and Meghan, 12 — are typical of many fellow youth-group members in terms of balancing their involvement with many other extracurricular activities. Cleary is pleased with the youth group’s overall level of commitment as well as its diversity, saying that young Catholics from several school districts are involved.
"Our successes are getting people represented from all walks of life," she said.
Cleary added that the members are full of typical teen spirit and energy, yet "everyone has been so respectful. I haven’t had any horror stories." For example, positive attitudes abounded during a Lenten service outing devoted to cleaning church grounds.
"I had 20 people on the windiest, coldest day of spring so far. I was so impressed that people were willing to donate their time and energy," Cleary said.
"We had such a great time, and it was something that was completely beneficial to the community," Jericha added.
Jericha is graduating a year early from Horseheads High School and will attend the University of Texas in the fall as a pre-med student. She said it’s important for St. Mary Our Mother’s youth group to continue thriving, asserting that teens who remain connected with their church are less likely to get in trouble.
"I really want more high-schoolers to get involved," she emphasized, "so they can see there are other things you can do than going off for a weekend and partying."