When one hears news of young people in the media these days, unfortunately, the nature of the report is often negative. There are stories about young people hijacking a car, vandalizing a building, disrupting a school with a threat of violence or engaging in opioid abuse.
However, there is a much bigger picture of what is taking place in the world of our young people than the stories being spun in the current news cycle. In fact, the real ground-breaking news is that a large number of our youth are engaged in a massive amount of service work, which is having a truly positive impact on our community.
I base this assessment on my experience as a newly-ordained bishop who has recently has encountered over 1,500 high school juniors and seniors in almost 30 celebrations of the Sacrament of Confirmation. One of the joys of meeting these young people is learning about the service projects which they have undertaken as part of a formation process, which prepares them for the reception of the sacrament. The service component of this preparation is a recognition that initiation into the fullness of membership in the Church involves following the example of Jesus in ministering to the needs of others.
What I have found to be both fascinating and inspirational about the service being performed by our young people is breadth of the work that they are doing. The reach of their compassion and kindness is far and wide.
As one might expect, some of the youth engage in service that is “close to home.” That is, it is related to their local environment. Thus, many youth perform service through groups affiliated with their high schools like the National Honor Society, the Key Club or campus ministry. Or, the young people take part in events which raise funds to support the mission of their parish like summer festivals, fish fries, chili suppers, spaghetti dinners, rummage sales and pancake breakfasts.
Yet, there are a significant number of youth who venture beyond their school or parish boundaries to help address social issues which affect the broader community. One of the issues which seems to be a primary focus of their ministry is to help alleviate hunger.
I have learned of young people serving in settings like the St. Ben’s Meal Program, Loaves and Fishes, Harvest House, the Open Door Café and the St. Vincent De Paul Meal Program. They also have staffed food pantries in places like the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee and other municipalities such as West Bend, Beaver Dam, Fond du Lac, Racine, Kenosha and more. Some have invested time in organizations which are seeking to deal with the problem of hunger on a structural and systemic basis like Feeding America, Second Harvesters and the Hunger Task Force.
Perhaps the most challenging and compelling outreach which the youth embrace are efforts to assist the homeless. Young people have visited shelters like the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and The Cathedral Center or helped their parish serve as a temporary place of respite in the Family Promise program.
The service of the young people also seems to encompass all ages. Many of them seek to help the elderly by visiting nursing homes, assisted living centers or memory care units. And, on the other end of the age spectrum, our youth minister to small children by volunteering as teacher’s aides and tutors in schools and religious education programs or serve as assistant coaches to kids who play a variety of sports.
The scope of the service of the youth even respects the need to care for our common home, the earth, as I have encountered youth who are involved with programs at the Urban Ecology Center and the Wehr Nature Center, as well as taking part in annual clean-up efforts of our river banks and our highways.
And, the generosity of the young people even ventures far beyond the confines of our own archdiocese with an abundant number of mission trips being sponsored by their parishes and schools — with some even traveling internationally as far away as the nations of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico.
But, even more impressive than the amount and variety of the service of our young people is the impact which this experience is having upon their faith and values. One young person commented that this service “opened my eyes to what is going on in the world” while another noted that it “changed the way that I look at life.”
Many relate the joy that they find in doing something which brings a smile to another’s face and truly seems to make a difference.
And, perhaps capturing the spirit of the overwhelming majority of the youth who shared their experience, one young person enthusiastically proclaimed, “somewhere in the midst of my outreach project, I stopped counting the service hours and realized that I want to make service the way of my life.”