Aug. 5-18, 2004
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Project Connect Brings Together Catholic Youth and Inner-City Children

At the beginning of the summer Katie Tees made a commitment. Since June, the 18-year-old has been working at the Northside Catholic Youth Organization (NSCYO). The center, which is located in a low-income and culturally and racially diverse neighborhood, offers a wide range of programs for children and teens and coordinates activities for refugee youth. “It’s a different experience than anything I have done before,” said Katie, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Cicero, “but it’s one that I really enjoy.” Katie is one of 17 teenagers from 10 diocesan parishes who have put their faith in action through Project Connect, a joint venture of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County and Diocesan Youth Ministry. Begun in 1999, the program pairs Catholic youth with inner-city children to enhance the lives of both groups. It includes recreational, social, educational and religious activities, including field trips, carnivals and talent shows.

Katie had a slew of summer jobs to choose from, but working with Project Connect appealed to her because she wanted to help underprivileged children. “This is something that really interested me,” she said. “Even though I live around Syracuse, I don’t visit the city often.” At NSCYO, one of the five sites where Project Connect students volunteer, Katie plays games with the children, helps them with their reading skills and lends them a hand preparing snacks. “I try to be a good role model for the kids to look up to,” explained Katie, as children started to pile into the NSCYO center for the afternoon. “It is important that they have people who show an interest in their lives and who are positive people to be around.” On a recent afternoon the three students who work at NSCYO with Project Connect joined the youngsters on a trip to the Burnett Park Zoo.

“We will be busy,” Katie said. “You have to watch the kids very closely.” Bill Fletcher, who works at Vincent House in Syracuse, said that his work with Project Connect has been a learning experience. “The hardest thing for me has been trying to divide my attention among the kids,” said Bill, 16, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in Dewitt. “I want to help all the kids, but it’s hard. I can only do so much at once.” Vincent House is affiliated with Catholic Charities and serves the Hispanic population in a low-income neighborhood on Syracuse’s west side.

John Graham, director of Vincent House, has noticed that over time a mutual understanding develops between the teenagers from Project Connect and the children. “The students from Project Connect are pretty much from outside the city,” he said. “Working here, they see firsthand the poverty that exists in the Syracuse community. It helps them learn a great deal.” The teenagers admit that it is difficult to see the economic hardships that the children face. “They do not have much,” said Leah Waldby, 16, who works at Vincent House. While Leah knows that she cannot change the children’s circumstances, she tries daily to do small things to make their lives a little better. “I have learned a lot about these kids,” said Leah, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Syracuse. “Although they are underprivileged, they don’t want material items. They need the love and affection. I try to tell them positive things and give them hugs. Stuff like that.”

Laura Brown, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Syracuse, has been surprised at some people’s reactions when she tells them where her summer job is. “I tell them I am working at Vincent House and they say things like, ‘Do you get nervous going there?’ and ‘Are you scared there?’” she said. “It’s not as different as they think it is. I have never felt scared here. I have had four different summer jobs and this is my favorite.” According to Leah, her experience has taught her there is a different side to the children –– one that is different from the stereotypes that are commonly associated with the neighborhoods where they live.

“Ninety percent of what you hear about this side of town is stereotypes,” said Leah. “Where they live is different and their situations are different, but this does not make them bad kids. Kids are the same no matter where you are.” Leah said the children of Vincent House, like other kids, enjoy outings to the movies, playing sports and games “They are really happy,” she said. “Coming to Vincent House is fun for them.” Paul Welch, associate director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, believes that Project Connect is a win-win situation for both groups involved. “The primary thing is for the children to see other kids from our community whom they would not normally come into contact with,” said Welch. But he said that Project Connect is an equally important experience for the teens. “Working with the less fortunate is important to evaluate their positions in life. It is important for us all”

When the program ends in mid-August, the teenagers will go back to their parishes and youth groups and share their experiences. They will ask for support from parishioners –– some of whom do not have a concrete idea of what life is like for these children and their families –– to help meet the needs of inner-city families. Katie, who plans to speak during Mass one weekend, hopes that her message will motivate her peers to get involved. “I have learned so much,” she said. “I hope they can learn from my experience.” Welch hopes that as the teenagers share their experiences with others, more students will become involved with Project Connect. “This year is the largest number of students we had participate to date,” he said. “Hopefully we will double this number by next year.”

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