by Deane Backes
Special to The Leaven
KELLY — As she sat on a hillside at a small youth rally here in 1998, Leah Heinen, then a senior at Nemaha Valley High School, felt a sense of community — a sense of inclusion.
Now, in her first year as coordinator of the Kelly Youth Rally, Heinen and lifelong friend Michelle Haverkamp played major roles in organizing this year’s 25th anniversary rally held Aug. 20 and designed around the theme “Famous in God’s Eyes.” Heinen’s son Will (a senior at Nemaha Central High School) and daughter Marin (an eighth grader) attended the day’s festivities.
“I remember feeling like I belonged to something,” Heinen recalled of that inaugural rally, which was organized by St. Bede Parish in Kelly.
“I honestly can’t remember who spoke,” she said. “But I do remember eating a good meal and I remember feeling like I belonged.”
Heinen began volunteering at KYR when her daughter Nyah was a seventh grader in 2015. Then, when former coordinator Leah Hermesch stepped down after organizing the event from 2013 to 2021, Heinen recalls mentally kicking around potential ideas for her replacement. Then, she had an aha! moment.
“I was sitting in church and looking around, going, ‘Who could take over for [Leah],’” Heinen said. “Basically, I had a big sense of, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I do this?’”
A member of St. Bede, Heinen, who also has a son Grant who will be able to make his first KYR in a couple of years, answered the call. And along with Haverkamp, she took over the rally, which segued from the “Renew 2000” program that was implemented by Archbishop James P. Keleher.
Following a quick welcome and a few announcements at St. Bede, Heinen and Haverkamp kicked off their first rally together with the hayrack ride that earned its stripes during that inaugural rally. About 20 pickups and trailers hauled students out to the rally site on the Lee and Jade Winkler Farm at about 4:30 p.m.
Next up was dynamic speaker Taylor Schroll, president of Forte Catholic, an evangelization and media ministry, who got things started for the almost 500 registered participants. Rally-goers then broke for a supper grilled to perfection by the Kelly Knights of Columbus before settling in to listen to keynote speaker and musician Cooper Ray.
The program paused briefly following the speakers portion of the rally so volunteers could set up for the outdoor Mass, which became a staple in 1999 and was celebrated this year by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
Although there were no students that qualified in 2022, KYR organizers typically hand out the Kelly Youth Rally Vocation Scholarship which is worth about $1,000 to a student that is going to school to become a priest or a Sister.
“The celebration of the Mass is the highlight of every rally,” explained Heinen. “The entertaining musicians, the inspirational speakers, the engaging interaction of the students who attend — it all leads up to the reception of Jesus in the sacrament of the holy Eucharist. Everything builds to that moment. The Mass is the ultimate finale and the defining moment of every rally.”
Laurie Niehues, who served as KYR co-coordinator with Connie Winkler from 1998-2012, is involved in the rally as a member of the planning committee known as the God Squad. Planning for the KYR has become intergenerational with students on the planning committee outnumbering the adults by a 40-23 count in 2022.
It has also become more regional, with 16 different parishes participating.
Niehues said she loves seeing so many kids get excited about learning more and participating more actively in their faith.
“It’s always been the goal of the rally to provide an event for our students locally that is a top-notch rally with top-notch speakers and entertainers,” Niehues said. “That gets them excited about their faith and helps them grow in their faith.”
It takes a lot of hard work for an event like KYR to last a quarter of a century, Niehues said.
“We started with something very small, and it grew into something amazing because of those parishioners at St. Bede’s Parish that were willing to dedicate so much time. It was all volunteer,” Niehues said. “Everything is voluntary by the parish, so it took a lot of volunteer hours.
“That’s who we call on to drive the pickups and the trailers. That’s who we call on at our local Knights of Columbus to make the food. I give so much credit to St. Bede’s Parish and those parishioners for staying with it all of these years.
“It’s a lot of work, but I think there are so many wonderful benefits.”