By Claudia Mathis
Cheryl Smith, diocesan resource center administrator for the Eastern Region Office of Faith Formation and formation assistant for Annunciation Parish in Clark Mills, was ecstatic when she learned several weeks ago that she had won an award for devising an innovative program to help teens on their faith journeys. She was attending an Office of Faith Formation retreat when she learned the good news. The staff members of the Faith Formation Office had nominated her for the award in January.
“I was overwhelmed with excitement and disbelief,” said Smith. “It was wonderful to find out that way — surrounded by friends.”
Smith received the New Wineskins Award on May 22 at the “Ignite the Fire of Faith” National Conference for Catechetical Leaders in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The experience was so awesome,” recalled Smith. “I became very emotional when they played a recorded message from Bishop Cunningham congratulating me.”
Challenges and changes
Smith said she felt a need to reach the teens in her parish by changing her teaching methods about three years ago. She had been involved with teen faith formation for 18 years and knew the challenges of teaching the age group: busy schedules, lack of interest, peer pressure, fatigue and boredom. Smith said teachers of religion also occasionally face a lack of parental support.
“This all makes truly reaching these young people very difficult,” she said. She added that because students may not feel comfortable speaking in front of their peers out of the fear of saying the wrong thing, the catechist doesn’t know if her students understand what is being taught.
Smith wanted to provide a program that would encourage teens to use their own gifts to make a difference in the world and to become disciples of Jesus. She also wanted to involve parents and the parish community in the teens’ faith formation.
The Power of ONE
With all this in mind, Smith developed the “Power of ONE” program. The program teaches students about the Creed, the Trinity, grace, the sacraments, social justice, saints, the Mass and morality, among other topics, in a way that makes them relevant to teens’ lives. The program is designed to “meet the students where they are [online] in the midst of their busy lives and allow them a place to not only learn about their Catholic faith, but feel safe when expressing their thoughts,” Smith said.
There are three components to the Power of ONE program: in-person sessions, online sessions and service.
At the first in-person session, parents join their children as the syllabus is explained in detail. Thereafter, the student in-person sessions are held about once every three to four weeks.
Students are required to answer questions on an online assignment between each in-person session. The online sessions give students the opportunity to navigate around their busy schedules and the chance for otherwise quiet students to express themselves more freely online.
The third component, service, connects the students with their parents, the parish, their community and God. Each student designs his or her own service project, coming to understand the idea of being called by God to use his or her unique talents to make a difference in their world.
Students receive help from their parents in choosing their projects. The parish community also gets involved in supporting the projects, which are announced in the church bulletin and explained during Mass. Parishioners are also invited to a celebratory event at the end of the program year. Students display photos of their projects and explain to visitors why they chose the project, what talents they used, what they learned and how they made a difference in their community.
Gabrielle Taverne, a senior at Westmoreland High School and a parishioner at Annunciation Parish, has participated in the Power of ONE program for the last two years. She currently serves as a peer minister at Smith’s in-person sessions.
“She really helps me to get the teens to open up by starting the discussions herself,” said Smith.
When Gabrielle first heard about the program in her 10th grade Confirmation class, she was very excited.
“It seemed like it would be fun and different,” commented Gabrielle.
During her first year of the program, Gabrielle designed the Pray for Our Troops Project. Inspired by her many relatives who serve in the military, Gabrielle organized a fundraiser, selling wristbands that were inscribed, “Pray for Our Troops.” Gabrielle used the money raised to put together care packages for her cousin’s unit overseas.
“They were thankful to get them,” said Gabrielle.
Gabrielle said that the program has benefitted her.
“It’s [the program] all about you doing something to inspire others to do what they believe,” she stated. “It’s helped me to open up, to approach people and it’s helped me to become a leader among my peers.”
Smith said that she has received lots of very positive feedback from teens, parents and parishioners and that the teens have encouraged her to keep the program going.
Teens from the Northern Region of the diocese stand to benefit from the program next year. Smith presented the program to catechetical leaders there and they are planning to implement it. Smith said that, in addition, two parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo want to try the program next year. She also talked with a pastor from California while attending the conference who thinks his parish would benefit from the program.
Smith said she is still in a state of disbelief about winning the New Wineskins Award.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “I am very excited, not so much for myself, but for the recognition of the Power of ONE program and that maybe others will realize what an exciting and engaging program this is for teens. I am so grateful to God that He gave me the idea, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, I was given what I needed to make it work.”