Brandli was hired in September 2008 as a part-time youth program coordinator at Casa Romero after a friend who was about to begin his Jesuit novitiate told her about the position.
“After I had worked at Casa for a little over a month, I started to envision what today’s youth need most: a community and a personal character led by the heart,” Brandli said. “Inspired by (Jesuit Fr.) Pedro Arrupe’s quote, ‘Falling in Love,’ I desired to create programs which promoted dignity of heart as a way of life in a world which is marked by paychecks and family cycles,” which she explained as being lifestyles dictated by the amount of money a person makes and the social order that becomes central to identity, and parents’ pressure on children to be what they weren’t in their youth. “I realized the desperate need for a community where today’s youth can thrive to live a life from the heart, based on what ‘seizes your imagination’ (Arrupe).”
This idea is what led Brandli to create two programs – Heart to Heart and Embracing Many Minds All United in Solidarity, or EMMAUS – both of which “address the spiritual formation of a supportive community and a character which stems from the heart,” Brandli said.
Heart to Heart, a retreat series that occurs about every two months, is an overnight retreat for teenage girls. The retreat, Brandli said, is “where teenage girls can fully express their uniquely beautiful individuality without feeling the pressures to live in accordance with the social standards of a teenage world, both at home and in school.” Brandli explained that the girls eat meals together, watch a movie and answer reflective questions that cover personal triumphs and tribulations they experience during adolescence.
“My hope is to create a safe and comfortable environment where the female youth can tear down any artificial barriers which cause a stagnate – as opposed to constantly forming – heart,” she said.
EMMAUS is a workshop series that Brandli created to educate students about choosing a vocation based on peace and desire rather than a paycheck. In partnership with Marquette University’s Campus Ministry, Brandli said Marquette students serve as facilitators at Casa Romero during the two-hour workshops, with themes of business, pre-med and education, that occur three times each semester. The Marquette students share how they discerned which field to pursue and speak with the groups.
“Along with small group reflections, the hope is that high school students – primarily first generation college students – will be inspired by the depth and passion shared by the Marquette students,” Brandli explained. “We hope for the high school students to take this inspiration and transform it into aspirations to become whatever one’s heart calls a person to be, regardless of external – family or money – influences.”
High school students’ participation in all three workshops results in an overnight retreat for students, like theater night or a dance party.
Brandli said though she doesn’t know exactly how many teens have been touched by her programs and work at Casa Romero, she does notice a transformation in their hearts.
“As I watch their interactions with one another, I smile with joy and gratitude as they begin to walk a path of respect and love for their community,” she said.
The programs are important to Brandli because of the potential they have to be self-sufficient.
“Although I am completely humbled by the community which has embraced my presence on Milwaukee’s south side, I am a full believer that everything I do as the youth program coordinator can be equally done by the youth who attend the programs,” Brandli said. “I hope to guide the formation of these young adults so that they see their impeccable ability to be leaders for their community.”
Brandli also hopes that the programs, led by some of the youth who participated during their high school years and have become facilitators, spread throughout Milwaukee.
“When I first began at Casa Romero, my strength of heart was pulled in many directions. The very first Heart to Heart retreat that I hosted, my pride went straight out the door,” Brandli said, remembering how five Latina girls walked through the door with “demeanors that shook her soul,” making her “feel like a fish out of water.”
While Brandli wondered how she would bond with the young women, whom she described as beautiful and classy, and if it was possible to interest them in a spiritual conversation, she said did it with the help of the Holy Spirit.
“From that night on, I am convinced that although there are trials and tribulations when creating programs to address the needs of the heart, I have an irrevocable conviction that we must go to the ends of the earth to meet the needs of our growing youth,” she said.
Before taking a small semester-long break from her work at Casa Romero to study in Jaipur, Rajastan, India, beginning in early January and through the end of April, Brandli did a Heart to Heart retreat with middle school girls. The group of high school girls that Brandli worked with for about a year through the program that began with that age group also received training in leadership for Heart to Heart.
“One aspect of my youth coordinating that I pay particular attention to is leadership sustainability,” Brandli said. “In other words, I want the community I work with to know that spiritual and community growth are possible within their own means.”
The retreat, led by the five high school girls Brandli trained, was what she called an “inspirational success,” bringing 20 youth to participate at Casa Romero.
“Seeing these high school girls utilize the leadership techniques that they were taught over the past year with the younger girls brought so much happiness to my heart,” Brandli said. “For these girls, the sky is the limit and their determination to make their community a place where everyone is accepted and loved is vividly apparent. We will continue the mentorship retreat this spring.”
Brandli has learned how to remain motivated in a ministry that experiences ups and downs.
“Love people at the level they are at when you meet them,” and be a free spirit she said, adding that it’s easy to take things personally and become emotionally attached to events or relationships when working with youth. “With the ‘free spirit’ way of life, a leader lives with the ebb and flow of personal information rather than trying to control the Holy Spirit’s path of truth.”
Remembering Fr. Arrupe’s words also fuels Brandli’s work, and the philosophy of the “Magis,” which she explained is Latin for “the more,” and “refers to doing every action for the greater glory of God.” Brandli said she applies the more to the greater glory of humanity inspired by the Holy Spirit.
“We cannot settle for mediocrity and must always go one step further to strive for excellence, not perfection,” Brandli said. “More is holding a door, smiling at a stranger or taking the back seat when leading. In order to fully embrace Pedro Arrupe’s quote, we must be ‘magis’ men and women.”
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” – Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe.