Team-building games were part of a family retreat experience offered by St. Anthony School in Milwaukee and held at the Catholic Ecology Center. (Submitted photo)

Great staff retreat experiences at the Catholic Ecology Center in Dodge County led St. Anthony School of Milwaukee to offer a day-long family retreat there in November.

“One thing that stuck out to our team is that we wanted our families to experience what we get to experience,” said Eyleen Hernandez, who serves as a parent coordinator for the school. “Every year we go to the Catholic Ecology Center for our end-of-year staff retreat, and every time we leave feeling rejuvenated, and we thought our families deserve this, too.”

In addition, “We want them to have the opportunity to experience things that are not just in walking distance, but to experience this peace and to see things outside of our city,” Hernandez said.

“It was really amazing,” said Susana Contreras, another one of the school’s parent coordinators. “We had almost 100 people and it was just beautiful.”

The goal, Contreras explained, was to provide families with an opportunity to connect, away from distractions. “We’ve seen, lately, the disconnect between parents and their families. Parents are working a lot. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to give to their kids. We’re working to help the connection, to go to a place to disconnect completely, take time as a family, and have fun activities.”

Cell phones were not allowed for participants, Contreras said. “At the end, one of the moms said she appreciated that, about the cell phones, that they didn’t think about cell phones all day. They took the time to really be there with the kids, talking and laughing.”

The day began at 7:30 a.m., when families boarded buses for the retreat at the Catholic Ecology Center, which is located just southeast of Neosho.

When they arrived, they gathered for an opening Mass, celebrated by St. Anthony’s Associate Pastor Fr. Milton Herrera. “It was a way for our families to participate, reading scripture, some were leading the songs,” Hernandez said. “For some families who don’t always have access to attend Mass on Sunday all the time, it was a beautiful way to reconnect and have that one-on-one with God.”

After Mass, participants divided into three smaller groups of families, and cycled through different activities.

“Oftentimes, the school or parish will give us a goal for the day,” said Theresa Liebert, Program Coordinator for the Catholic Ecology Center. “We design the day around those goals,” she said. The goal for St. Anthony’s retreat was to grow in faith and communication.

One activity was a series of team building games. “People had to work as a team and communicate,” said Hernandez. “It was team building with families. A lot of it was building support, and realizing you need each other to accomplish a final goal.”

One game involved removing a ball from a cage using sticks, Contreras said. “The main purpose was communication. Each participant had a stick, and they had to work together to get the ball out of there. It was kids versus parents. It was fun to see people laughing.”

Another activity was a nature hike around the grounds. Hernandez said the leaders from the Catholic Ecology Center taught families about the animals and plants that live on the grounds, including many that are unique to Wisconsin. “Seeing them light up as they learned these new things was really cool,” she said. “We ended the trail at a chicken coop, where the kids could catch the chickens, and hold them, and watch eggs being hatched.”

Groups also participated in an art activity, painting small clay pots. “You could see families coming together with ideas for pots they were painting,” Hernandez said.

“That was the relaxing time of the day, to slow down and have some bonding time in those relationships,” Liebert said.

“Some of the parents, especially the dads, didn’t want to do it, but we encouraged them to participate in everything,” Contreras said. “At the end, one of the dads was like, ‘Thank you for encouraging me and pushing me out of my comfort zone.’”

Participants enjoyed tacos for lunch and received a dinner to go at the end of the day. “We wanted to make sure we had everything for them there,” Contreras said.

This was the school’s first family retreat, which was funded by a grant from City Forward Collective, Hernandez said. Planning began in February. She explained that the idea was inspired by the annual staff retreat.

St. Anthony School has approximately 1,500 students in grades K4 through 12. The retreat was open to families of students in all grades. Both Contreras and Hernandez said that they hope to make this an annual event, and to expand it. “If we could take double or triple next year, that would be great,” Hernandez said.

“It was beautiful to see the joy in the parents with their kids and spending time with their children,” Contreras said.