by Moira Culling
TONGANOXIE — Jennifer Eastes and Nancy Lanza were a little worried the evening of the Sacred Heart bingo fundraiser here.
“I was so nervous. . . . We actually stopped in the middle of cooking and went to pray,” said Eastes.
The duo was hired last July as the new youth ministry directors for the parish, and this was their first major fundraiser.
“They were both kind of frantic,” said Father Mark Goldasich, pastor of Sacred Heart.
Despite their nerves, the pair sold over 300 bingo cards, served dinner to about 130 hungry parishioners and raised close to $4,700 in one night — not too shabby for a parish of roughly 450 parishioners.
Eager to serve
Both Eastes and Lanza are mothers with a love of helping children, and what they lack in formal training is made up tenfold in creativity and passion for their work.
“Jennifer has an education background,” said Lanza. “And Nancy’s really organized,” said Eastes.
With Eastes’ experience as an elementary school teacher, she offers a unique take on lesson plans and developing exceptional curriculum, noted Father Goldasich.
“Lanza, being the mom of older and adult children, brings a practical experience into the job as to what will likely work with the older kids,” he continued.
The skills they offer apply to both the youth ministry program, as well as the religious education program, which they also run.
So, why the duo? And why are they taking on both roles?
“I think in small parishes, people often wear a number of hats,” said Father Goldasich, “so I don’t think it’s all that unusual to have religious educators double as youth ministers.”
Doubling up also provides a smoother transition for the kids from confirmation into youth group, he added.
“They’re both very dynamic people,” he said, “so we feel that between the two of them, they can really reach a wide group of kids.”
Both Eastes and Lanza have high expectations for their confirmation students.
“One of the major goals of our religious education program is to increase attendance and get the kiddos to class,” said Eastes.
“We feel the more they hear God’s word and have opportunities for fellowship with friends who share their beliefs, the more devoted they will be as Catholic adults,” she continued.
Other goals are to offer activities that promote family togetherness and help the kids understand they are an important part of the parish as well.
“I think the youth of today hear society’s negativity too much,” said Lanza. “They are told they are lazy, not connected and can’t be counted on to make wise decisions.
“We work to remind them that they do have a lot to offer, not just in our parish, but in the community and world [as well].”
Onward and upward
The opportunity for kids to transition from the religious education classes to a youth group under the same leadership is a golden one.
“A lot of times when kids finish confirmation, they’re like, ‘No more religious education for me,’” said Father Goldasich.
“But then they’ve got all their high school years, which are incredibly important years. . . . So [Eastes and Lanza] are making sure that there’s a transition from confirmation to the youth group.”
Both leaders see this as an important part of their ministry.
“The youth group should really be an extension of the religious education program,” said Lanza.
And with two directors, the well of creativity never runs dry.
Each week, the youth group participates in either a fellowship activity or an act of service. Every lesson also incorporates a devotion, which includes a video, prayer service or article reflection.
For both Eastes and Lanza, the service opportunities have been the most rewarding.
“Service can be fun, and we need to make it fun,” said Lanza. “Because if we instill in them at an early age that this is what you do, then this is what they’ll do as adults.”
One of their most memorable service activities was a competitive scavenger hunt, where kids were given a list of items to find from houses of parishioners and family friends.
“The end result was that we were getting items for the local food pantry,” said Lanza. “All we had to tell them was that the winning team would get a prize.”
The prize, a gigantic chocolate chip cookie, was all the motivation these kids needed.
“To tell them afterwards, ‘You just did a big service — you just gave a lot of needed necessities to people who don’t have the means — and you did that within an hour,’” said Lanza, “that just made it even more fun.”
For the kids involved, the opportunity to serve alongside their peers is a special one.
“I have learned that when you work together with your classmates, serving others is a great way to help the community,” said Dallas Bond, a seventh-grader in Sacred Heart’s confirmation course.
“I’m glad that my church helps us find different ways to serve,” he said.
Dallas’ mom LeAnn is grateful for the opportunities her son has experienced through the religious education program.
“I sincerely hope that Dallas can realize that serving others is more important than PlayStation, Instagram and all the other distractions in a teen’s life,” she said.
“The youth leaders at our church are very passionate about their jobs and are working to make our youth strong,” she continued. “I feel blessed that he has such wonderful role models to help him.”
Both directors agree that making a positive impact and watching the kids flourish in an atmosphere of service is what makes this job worth it.
“As far as our youth group, we hope to encourage a heart for service and a desire to never cease trying to become the best version of themselves,” said Eastes.
Laying the groundwork
Fortunately for the duo, a little online research and some good old-fashioned brainstorming is all they really need to overcome their lack of training.
“We bounce many ideas back and forth,” said Eastes. “There are also many generous people in our parish who offer us encouragement and support and are always there to help us out.”
Independent research has allowed the directors to mold their communication style to the learning needs of each of their students.
Like any youth ministry staff, especially at a small parish, Eastes and Lanza fight through frustrations when the turnout is not what they had hoped for.
“But [for] those kids that are here, we just want to make the most of it for them,” said Eastes, “because they’ve taken time out of their evenings to come.”
It’s a work in progress, but the directors are eager to continue building a foundation for this enhanced youth ministry program.
“I think that’s what the biggest reward of this job is,” said Lanza. “We’re making a difference, if only for a little bit.
“If I can say at the end of the day that I helped build the foundation, and as long as there’s still that foundation there, it’s good.”