• Leah Swarthout, a fifth-grader at St. Michael’s School in Penn Yan, takes part in a carnival to raise money for charity during the school’s Mission Day March 12.
    Leah Swarthout, a fifth-grader at St. Michael’s School in Penn Yan, takes part in a carnival to raise money for charity during the school’s Mission Day March 12.

Students learn to serve, care

Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Back to School


Students at Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Rochester raised thousands of dollars this spring in response to the deadly earthquake and tsunamis that struck Southeast Asia last December. They held bake sales and Mardi Gras carnivals; contributed money in exchange for the right to come to school out of uniform; and did odd jobs around their neighborhoods, emptying their piggy banks into boxes and jars in their classrooms.

The money they raised was sent to Catholic Relief Services, which used it to aid tsunami victims. Although they may be small in stature, the children proved they can accomplish big things. Students at St. Michael's School in Newark, for example, raised more than $1,080 with a single fundraiser, while students at Webster's Holy Trinity School raised more than $2,600 by contributing $1 each time they wanted a non-uniform day.

As amazing as it may sound, this kind of generosity is nothing new for local Catholic schools, said Sister of St. Joseph Margaret Mancuso, diocesan assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Catholic-school communities tend not to see anything unusual in their service efforts, since service long has been such an integral component of the schools' mission.

"It's so much a fiber of who we are that it's just sort of taken for granted," Sister Mancuso said.

This year, however, the children's tsunami-relief efforts -- like the disaster itself -- received quite a bit of media attention. But the students didn't raise the money because they were looking for the limelight. They were simply putting into action what they had learned about social justice.

Service to others is a basic component of the religious curriculum in diocesan Catholic schools, but it's even more than that, Sister Mancuso said.

"It's a part of who we are as Catholic schools. It's tied into the mission to follow Jesus," she said. "We talk about building community, working together and being of service."

Local needs

Although the diocesan curriculum guidelines call for each school to involve its students in some type of service project, Sister Mancuso said the schools are free to develop service opportunities that address the unique needs of their own communities.

Students at St. Margaret Mary School in Irondequoit helped the needy in their community last year by collecting toiletries for McAuley House and toys for Steuben County Rural Ministry, said Sister of Mercy Mary Alice O'Brien, principal. Meanwhile, students at St. Ann's School in Hornell donated pet food and bowls to the local humane society and collected goods for needy children during Operation Christmas Child, said Sister of Mercy Dolores Ann Stein, principal.

In December, students from Holy Rosary School in Rochester held a "baby shower for Jesus," filling 20 baskets with donated diapers, clothing, food and toys. They then donated the baskets to the Sisters of Mercy's Melita House, an outreach for pregnant young women.

The students are always very enthusiastic about projects like this and often come up with ideas for their own projects, said Kathleen Dougherty, former principal of Holy Rosary School and newly appointed principal of The Cathedral School at Holy Rosary. Many of the school's students do not come from particularly affluent families, which makes their commitment to service and social justice even more impressive, Dougherty said.

Most service activities at Holy Family Junior High in Elmira are organized by the Service Club, to which 95 percent of the school's 157 students belonged last year. Through this club, the students served their school and church; community organizations and agencies; and organizations run by the diocese or Catholic Charities, said Elizabeth Berliner, principal.

At Our Mother of Sorrows School in Greece, students supported local children whose families had been torn apart by violence and donated money to the renovation of Park Ridge Hospital's emergency room, said Carol Gutmann, school secretary. Through these projects, the children become aware of the hardships endured by others in the community.

"The awareness is important because we are members of the community, and it is our responsibility as good citizens to help others," Gutmann said. "As a Catholic school, we strive to teach the total individual and help them to grow spiritually, academically and socially. Christian social justice is best taught by example."

For the past 25 years, students from St. Louis School in Pittsford have hosted Sunshine Luncheons for local nursing-home residents, said Mary Colliss, school secretary. Students make the decorations and provide musical entertainment, with sixth-graders serving as hosts and hostesses for the event.

"The act of giving their time, talents and treasures is something that is introduced in our preschool classes and built upon as the students advance to sixth grade. Their generosity towards those less fortunate becomes second nature as they mature," Colliss said.

Global family

It's not just local communities that benefit from Catholic-school service projects, however.

"We take care of the needs in our areas, but we also get them to see that they are global citizens," Sister Mancuso said.

St. Lawrence School in Greece was one of several local schools that gave students a tangible reminder of their brothers and sisters around the world. After raising money for tsunami relief, the students were given bracelets from Catholic Relief Services with the words "One Human Family" written on them, said Joseph Holleran, principal at St. Lawrence.

The recent disaster in Southeast Asia was one of many events that have triggered an outpouring of support from Catholic-school students. Service projects are often based on events happening in other parts of the country or world. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for example, many students showed their support by sending prayers, money, clothing and blankets to New York City.

Six years ago, St. Louis students raised enough money to open a school in Kenya. Last year, students at Holy Family Junior High sent several hundred dollars to St. Joseph's School in Pondicherry, India, while students at Holy Family Intermediate School raised money for an orphanage in Haiti.

"It is important for us as Catholic-school educators to teach our students to give back to the community. Sometimes our community spreads out to touch other parts of the world," said Marie Arcuri, principal of Good Shepherd School in Henrietta.

Students at Good Shepherd learned just how large their community really is when one of their former teachers, Mary Lentine, moved to Florida and began teaching there. Many of her new second-grade students lost their homes when hurricanes pounded Florida in 2004, so students at Good Shepherd collected $1,040 and sent it to Lentine, who purchased toys and a new Christmas outfit for each of her students.

"She sent us pictures of her students opening their gifts. This helped our students share in the experience," Arcuri said.

When the father of three St. Lawrence students was deployed to Iraq, the students' classmates wrote letters to him and his fellow soldiers. To fourth-grader Alana Olivieri, showing love and support for a classmate and her father "made me feel good and made me feel like I was reaching out to the world to help."

Students at Christ the King School in Irondequoit also wrote letters and sent boxes of supplies to local soldiers serving overseas. Learning to serve others "prepares you for the future and helps you become a better person," said sixth-grader Sarah Brown. When kids help those less fortunate than themselves, they also learn how to be grateful for everything they have, said classmate Claire Maurer.

Being able to help others also gives students confidence and the knowledge that they can make a difference even though they're young, said Margie Welfelt, fourth-grade teacher at St. Rita's School in Webster.

"They enjoy helping and bringing a smile to someone's face," observed Patty Purvee, secretary at St. Monica's School in Rochester.

 

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