By Dyann Nashton
Sun contributing writer
UTICA — The Summer Youth Program in Utica gains momentum this year, attracting new teens from throughout the region while veteran participants prepare for continuing education and volunteering next summer to staff the program.
According to Co-Director Rick Hensel, the annual program has increasingly begun to reach young people from outside its home base at the Church of the Sacred Heart & St. Mary, Our Lady of Czestochowa and at times has surpassed its usual numbers of 40 to 60 participants. The program is sponsored by 20 area parishes, he said, and seems to have gained its traction through speakers who witness their own experience with Christ.
This year 60 youths on average have been attending the program. Demographics seem heaviest in the 7th and 8th grade levels, he noted. It makes for an enthusiastic group, he said: “I’m confident these younger kids will continue to attend in the coming years.” Not surprisingly, numbers topped out during the recent heat wave with two buses totaling 70 kids visiting Enchanted Forest Water Safari, he said.
New this year, he said, was the addition of a family day to celebrate the Year of the Family. A picnic at the nearby Roselawn banquet facility will give youth participants a chance to invite their parents and siblings. Adults and youth will separate during the program and parents will get a “pep talk on raising their kids Catholic.” He said the program touched on this piece last year, but coordinators decided to fully incorporate it this summer by “putting a spin on it and expanding on it.”
Frankfort-Schuyler High School graduate Walter Siegenthaler is a member of St. Anthony’s/St. Agnes Parish who plans to study electrical engineering technology at Mohawk Valley Community College. After five years with the program, he is excited to be able to return next year as part of the volunteer staff. He enjoyed the rotating cast of characters each year which meant rekindling friendships from previous years while also making new ones.
Participating in the diocesan trip to Steubenville, which he said could best be described as experiencing Mass as part of a rock concert, punctuated his experience. But he echoed Hensel’s comments about the Summer Youth Program, noting that the witness speakers over the years made the most lasting impression on him. He said, “It sent the message that not everything about being Catholic is straight praying.”
While the Steubenville trip was not formally part of the program this summer, said Hensel, “Kids from the program such as Walter did go on the trip, returned, and gave testimony. We try to offer this kind of shared experience in any way we can in the short time the young people are in the program.”
Alyssa Drier is new to the program from Oriskany, a community to the west of Utica. She learned about the program from Utica friend Dominick Scholfield. Alyssa is a member of St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s Parish in Rome. The program, especially its speakers and welcoming counselors, “has definitely brought me closer to the Church,” she noted. The most valuable lesson, she said, has been “to stay involved with your faith even after high school.”
Meanwhile, Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Dominick, who spurred Alyssa’s interest in the Summer Youth Program, is in his fifth year at the program. He noted that there is a special moment at the conclusion of each lively, fun session that he has found particularly meaningful. “At the end, we talk about one thing,” he said. “It’s quiet and only one person speaks. Everyone gets a chance to cool down and really listen to another’s journey. We learn that we can all do things differently with our faith.” He will be in 11th grade in the fall.
Another Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner, Tori Haggerty, who will be attending 11th grade at New Hartford High School, said the witness that stood out the most to her so far was the recent discussion by Anthony Rabia. Hensel said Rabia spoke to the teens about not hiding behind “disguises” and being true to themselves by seeking God in all they do. Scholfield said it really impressed him that “we are not always alone” and there are other young Catholics in search of the same things.
Haggerty said she feels the friendships she has made have taught her how to make friends and to really connect with others, especially with people she would not have ever normally had a chance to meet — like her friend Ariana, with whom she talks every day in between the years at the Summer Youth Program. “I’ve also learned to connect with my own faith and about truly being present when I’m at Mass and in other situations,” she said.