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Breaking the high school stereotype

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff

It’s going to be a bad hair week for 15 seniors-to-be from Lexington Catholic High School in Kentucky.

But the benefits will outweigh the lack of hair dryers. In late June they’re spending six days in the Bronx with the Missionaries of Charity, sleeping in the homeless shelters for men and women, and also doing without Game Boys and cellular phones.

They won’t make much of a dent in humanity’s problems, but it’s a faith experience, a learning experience and an example to younger students.

“Everyone’s focusing [because of the recent high school shootings] on what’s wrong with American high school kids,” said Fr. James Sichko, Lexington’s chaplain and co-campus minister, who dreamed up the program. “This shows a different side.”

This small delegation to the Bronx -- Lexington Catholic already has a summer outreach experience in Belize -- is typical of programs in many of the nation’s 1,350 Catholic high schools where students are typically middle-to-upper middle class.

Cotter High School, on the banks of the Mississippi in Winona, Minn., is six years into similar programs. By the end of this summer, 66 of Cotter’s 390 students will have had “cross-cultural ministry” experience in a New York City homeless shelter, said Cotter principal Jeanne-Marie Faller, building houses in Colorado, working on a Native American reservation, or teaching English to children and repainting a church in Mexico -- and “raising $32,000 to pay for it.”

“That’s a lot of apple pies,” said Faller. “And car washes.” Cotter High also runs an annual exchange program with Northern Ireland students. Students from St. Dominic’s Catholic High in Lewiston, Maine, have already concluded their outreach. It’s an option in the “fourth quarter involvement program” built into their senior year.

They focus on Mound Bayou, Miss.

The outreach, in its second year, is the joint creation of teacher Jeff Dee and principal Michael Welch. Welch worked in Mississippi for a year, and St. Dominic’s linked up with Christian Brother Tom Geraghty in Mound Bayou, one of the poorest all-black municipalities in the country. What St. Dominic’s students did last year was clean up the mess left after a freak ice storm destroyed the roof of the St. Vincent de Paul recreation hall that is part of Geraghty’s outreach to the local community.

This year -- the same week that two high school students in Littleton, Colo., went down in infamy -- St. Dominic’s students went back to the recreation hall to chip the tiles off the building’s floor as the new roof was readied. Before the trip started, though, they raised almost $11,000 to pay for it. Lexington students were luckier. They each had to find only $250 because Delta Airlines kicked in with cheap tickets ($150 round-trip instead of $400).

Other bonuses: New York Cardinal John O’Connor has invited the Lexington juniors to his residence, and another group has donated the classic once-around-the-island New York tour boat cruise.

Lots of American high school students of all faiths do volunteer work. The spiritual dimension is an important component for the Catholic students.

Usually there is a commissioning program before the students set off.

Daily in Mound Bayou there’s a service led by one of the adult advisers. Everyone goes to Mass at a local church. Lexington students have had a more in-depth spiritual approach, said Sichko. While working with the Missionaries of Charity in Jenkins, Ky., the Bronx group has been praying together weekly. Once in the Bronx there will be daily Mass and a daily holy hour.

Sichko, who has been ordained a year, said, “We’re working together on spirituality and mission. At the afternoon briefings I’m asking them, ‘Where is God in the midst of this?’ ”

Sichko said he wants the students to use the experience “to evangelize the other students during their senior year.”

“The spirituality part,” said Cotter principal Faller, “is very important in terms of understanding others. They’re being exposed to other beliefs, they’re learning the reasons some people are poorer than they are -- and some of our students are not very wealthy. The spiritual component is essential to the exposure they get to reality and life.”

Given the heightened attention the nation is paying to high school students as part of the Littleton shootings’ ripple effect, how do Cotter’s kids measure up?

Faller, previously a principal in New York, replied, “These are very good kids. Excellent parents. I’ve never been in a school where parents have had so must investment in their children’s education.”

Are the students self-disciplined and willing to work? “They’re a piece of cake compared to New York,” said Faller. “Hey, don’t tell them I said that!” she added.

Only the essentials

What constitutes teenage deprivation?

The “what not to bring” list for Lexington Catholic High School students on “mission experience” in the Bronx might sum it up:

No makeup, perfume/cologne, jewelry, watches, cameras, electronic devices (such as Game Boys, hair dryers, curling irons, cellular phones), purses, wallets, tank tops, shorts, medicine (such as Tylenol or aspirin), games, alcohol, drugs, any kind of food, no books other than spiritual reading (which must be approved).

OK to go:

One uniform; two work outfits (anything you don’t mind getting dirty); underwear, shoes, socks, picture ID (those over 18); money/traveler’s checks (chaperon will keep); toothpaste, deodorant, essentials; medicine (given to chaperon with instructions); journal (notebook), one pen or pencil.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999