Their parents may not speak English, and cultural traditions may clash with the American way of life.

Often not fitting in at home with their Spanish-speaking parents because they are too Americanized, or among their school peers, because they are too foreign, and subject to intolerance, some Hispanic youth are susceptible to drugs, gangs, bullying, educational disadvantages and early parenthood.

But, thanks to the intervention of Casa Romero Renewal Center, Milwaukee-area Hispanic youth are given tools to help them get jobs, go to school and raise families.

According to the program’s founder, Jesuit Fr. Dave Shields, the center forms and renews individuals and strengthens families, building community in the Ignatian tradition.

Jesuit returns home with goal

The Milwaukee native returned home in 1996 after teaching and ministering on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for 22 years. His goal was to find an affordable haven for the Latino community; he found a vacant and run-down building for $100 and relied on donations to renovate the space.

Located on Bruce Street in a convent built in 1888 by the German-speaking School Sisters of Notre Dame to serve the city’s German immigrants, the center reaches out to the area’s Spanish speaking population from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Latin and South America.

For more information on Casa Romero Renewal Center, visit or: 423 W. Bruce St., Milwaukee (414) 224-7564

Named after Oscar Romero, martyred archbishop of San Salvador, the center serves as a haven for adults and youth to reflect and pray, learn, share and dine together.

“When we started this place, I thought it would be for adults, and then we started doing the mother-daughter retreats for the quinceañera, based on the girls’ dreams and emerging desires, remembrance and passing on tradition. In the midst of all that, probably about six years ago, we did a training for young people who were in a summer program and at the end of it, one 16-year-old was so taken by Casa Romero, she wanted to do something here to help,” said Fr. Shields. “She loved it and started being the co-facilitator for the mother-daughter retreat.”

Teens embrace opportunity to help

A few other teens supported the 16-year-old’s idea and together they began a formation program to guide middle school students. As the middle school students moved to high school, they embraced the opportunity to guide younger students through retreat programs that deal with bullying, self-esteem, discovering their gifts, talents, relationships and their roles as emerging high school students.

“Last year we had 32 high school and college facilitators and this year, more than 50 want to be a part of it,” said Fr. Shields. “I am not sure why these numbers are increasing other than I think they get a big kick out of watching young people grow and get a charge out of being role models for younger people and having a real part to play in the lives of young people. They find the retreats meaningful and work hard to make them successful. I believe it is empowering as they mentor and know that they are engaged in doing something valuable.”

Young men create ‘personal coat of arms’

Program coordinator Colleen Rooney oversees formation of the volunteer retreat leaders through the Ignite Program, as well as holistic wellness, and the Knight’s Quest Series for middle school boys and witness talks.

The Knight’s Quest calls young men to realize their gifts and create a personal “coat of arms” to help articulate the virtues that guide their lives. The boys explore gender roles, discuss the challenges faced by young men and confront these issues in order to become positive role models in their communities.

Retreats give voice to voiceless

“All of our youth retreats help to give a voice to those who are told that they have no voice,” said Rooney. “For example, success looks different here than it did in Mexico for their parents and we help them learn to live in a different culture with a different pathway to success, to help find their voice through witness stories, personal relationships, and find ways to realize their hopes and dreams and empower them to change their lives.”

While some retreats are held at Casa Romero, the one-day middle school retreats are usually held at the Cousins Center or at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Retreats include students from nine public and private schools during the year, such as Pius XI, St. Thomas More, Divine Savior Holy Angels, Marquette, Dominican, Messmer, Greenfield, Franklin and South Milwaukee high schools.

“We work the retreats around college breaks or days off for the high school students,” said Rooney, who added that facilitators must be in good academic standing to participate. “We usually have retreat for about 20 to 40 kids, and the coed, bullying and friendship retreats are all at least 40 students.”

Pre-law student arranges schedule around retreats

With a year of leadership under his belt, facilitator Carlos Beltran, member of Prince of Peace and a UWM sophomore, began helping as a witness talker as part of an urban plunge where students not from the inner city come and experience inner city problems.

“My talk was on immigration and I think it was extremely effective because it kind of gave the people a faith and the reality that stories like that were closer than they thought to their lives – we have many commonalities,” he said. “Now I facilitate pretty much any of the retreats, except for the girls’ retreats.”

In the first hour or so of the retreats, Beltran admitted students don’t always take the retreats seriously, but as the day unfolds, the lessons, stories and sharing hit home and the youth become more engaged.

“All retreats have a purpose, the Knight’s Quest or boys will teach them how to become real men, not in what the media tells you we should be, and the bullying retreats are extremely important, especially with cyber bullying,” he said. “Emmaus lets them think about what do to after high school, and going to college because a lot of their parents didn’t go to college. The retreats give them things to think about.”

Because he believes the Catholic-based retreats are so important, Beltran, a pre-law student, arranges his college and work schedule around the retreat dates.

“I put about two days a week in for Casa Romero and attend college full time and work full time,” he said. “This is very important to me and I pretty much look at the Casa Romero schedule and pick my work and school accordingly.”

Are opportunity to give back

For Daniela Cortes, a digital video production major at Carroll College and member of Congregation of the Great Spirit, the opportunity to facilitate retreats offers her an opportunity to give back.

So moved by the Heart to Heart and quinceañera retreats she attended, Cortes originated the “Beyond a Label Friendship Retreat.” It is a follow up to the bullying retreat, as she wanted to help young teens with self-esteem issues.

“There were a lot of things when I went through the retreats that I wished I would have known before, or some things that happened when I was growing up through high school that would have helped with my bullying or self esteem issues,” she said. “So I thought it would be good for me to give back to other kids so that maybe they would not have to deal with the same problems.”

A formerly shy, quiet girl, Cortes credits Casa Romero with helping her find her voice in the world and learn how to become a leader.

“I didn’t realize until I told my story that I have important things to say that might help others,” she said. “It is so rewarding because we kind of see the kids we start with in fifth grade and keep going back to do a different retreat until they are in eighth grade. I get to see them change and use the skills they were taught at the last retreat to build on the new one and keep going.”

Teen aims to change lives

Cortes believes by working with the youth, they, in turn, will help to improve the lives of others.

“They can teach these skills not only to their peers, but to their brothers and sisters,” she said. “And with our bullying retreats, maybe they aren’t getting bullied in school, but they might be getting bullied at home or they can share it with their younger brothers and sisters so they don’t have to go through it. We inspire these kids to go and spread the message and make a difference in the world.”

The work at Casa Romero is important in developing young people into adult Christians and productive adult citizens, said Fr. Shields.

“The principle that it takes a whole village to raise a child is true,” he said. “Teachers can teach, and parents can parent, but there also needs to be a place for experiences that take students out of the ordinary classroom situation to allow minds to grow in a safe environment. They need to be able to be curious, and to feel free to challenge what they hear, what voices they follow, and we play a very important part in their development through getting the retreats. The only way to develop leaders is to give young people the formation they need and the wings to become leaders … so, we do that, and I think that is just so cool.” Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic Herald