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January 18, 2009

Finding sweetness in service Catholic schools instill the value of helping others

By Michelle Martin


Making lunches. Baking pumpkin bread. Tutoring children. Emptying recycling bins.

Service comes in many forms, and lots of them can be seen at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The schools are preparing to celebrate Catholic Schools Week, this year with a theme of “Catholic Schools Celebrate Service,” but service is nothing new for Catholic school students.

“It’s part of our mission,” said Jeanne Petkus, principal at St. Joseph School in Round Lake. “We want them to be good Christians and good Catholics. That’s what we’re all about. We’ll know we succeeded when they graduate and go out into the world and are willing to help others.”

To help link service to others with their Catholic faith, students at St. Joseph are doing some sort of project in tandem with each of the cardinal virtues during this school year.

In January, in honor of the March for Life, students are collecting change in baby bottles for a crisis-pregnancy center. The collection is linked to the virtue of fortitude, Petkus said, because it takes fortitude to express pro-life views in today’s society, and it takes fortitude for a woman or girl facing a crisis pregnancy to make the decision to carry her baby to term.

In February, they will honor the virtue of love by collecting for ComPadres, a nonprofit started by archdiocesan priest Father John Barkemeyer, now an active duty military chaplain, to help the chaplains give soldiers deployed in Iraq whatever they need to make their lives easier.

“The ideas kind of come from the Holy Spirit,” Petkus said.

In addition, each class at the school has taken on its own year-long effort. One class is collecting the pop tabs from the tops of soda cans for the Ronald McDonald Houses; another has committed to empty all the recycling bins in the school once a week.

The kids like to give something of their own — whether their time, their allowances or their stuffed animals — instead of just asking mom or dad for a check.

“We emphasize participation, not the amount. It you have a nickel, that’s as good as having $100 if it’s all you’ve got.”

While many schools emphasize having students spend their time rather than their money, in some cases, money is the best way to help.

For example, students at Prince of Peace School in Lake Villa are working to help the Catholic schools in the Nsukka Diocese in Nigeria, with whom the Archdiocese of Chicago has established a partnership. But what the schools in Nsukka need more than anything is cash.

To make the connection between service and money, the students at Prince of Peace are spending their time to make the money to donate.

On Jan. 12, fourth-graders dipped pretzels in chocolate to sell at school the next day, with the proceeds going to the “Dollars for Dreams” fundraiser for Nsukka. Earlier, the schools third-graders performed extra chores at home to earn money for the fundraiser, said the principal, Mary Loy Cacioppo.

Overall, Cacioppo hoped to collect $300 to $400, which is to be presented to Esther Hicks, the archdiocese’s director of Catholic school identity and mission, Jan. 28 of Catholic Schools Week.

Patrick Browne, the principal of Our Lady of Humility School in Beach Park, serves as the volunteer coordinator for a PADS shelter at St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville. He found some willing volunteers in his own school, eighth graders who spend their religion class time one day a month packing 45 sack lunches for the clients who use the shelter to take with them when they leave in the morning.

The students wipe down the tables and cover them with paper before assembling bags containing two sandwiches, chips, a soft drink and dessert. The food is paid for by a donation from a parishioner at Our Lady of Humility, and Browne shops for it.

Experiencing religion

“The kids just feel really good about it,” said Browne, who is in his second year at the school and has 20 years in Catholic education. “They get a much better experience of religion if they are helping someone.”

The school’s efforts this year started in the fall, when the students brought in more than 1,000 items to stock a food pantry in Our Lady of Humility’s rectory. Other service related efforts have included having the fifth- and sixth-graders sing at local senior citizens’ facilities.

Linda Noonan, principal at St. Priscilla School, 7001 W. Addison St., said students often volunteer on their own time, and those preparing for the sacrament of confirmation have to do 20 hours of service.

One thing the school encourages is having older students stay after school to tutor younger students.

“You need to always give back for what you have received,” she said, adding that the school supports the food pantry at St. Cyprian Parish. “We try to encourage the idea that we’re all in this together.”

Continuting to serve

Service by no means ends in elementary school. Many Catholic high schools require students to perform a given number of service hours.

Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights also does not require service hours, said Springfield Dominican Sister Dorothy Marie Solak, the Service Club moderator. The school looked into requiring service hours about 10 years ago, Solak said, but found that 93 percent of its students were engaging in service to others voluntarily already.

“Isn’t that what we want them to learn, that they do service from their heart and not because we are requiring them to do so?” Solak wrote in an e-mail. “We then decided to continue to allow the students to do service out of their goodness and not because we were ‘making them do service’ and so we have no service hour requirement at Marian Catholic.”

The service opportunities there vary from collecting food for needy families to a trip to Appalachia to fix up homes.