Topeka twins’ home-grown summer youth program makes a splash
By Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
TOPEKA — College freshmen Matt and Abby Hamel from Christ the King Parish here were inseparable until they chose to attend different colleges last fall.
Though Matt was at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and his twin sister was at Benedictine in Atchison, they still talked on the phone almost every day and were determined to do something fun together this summer.
The fun they chose came as a surprise to many people.
And an even bigger surprise was the number of Catholic teens who chose to join them.
“We were brainstorming,” said Matt. “And we came up with: Wouldn’t it be fun, just for the summer, to get kids together that have an interest in their faith?”
Their home parish hadn’t had a teen youth ministry program for two years, so the twins saw a gap they might be able to fill.
With that idea in mind, they developed a 10-week summer program targeting middle and high school students.
They named it “The Net” based on a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).
While home over spring break, they pitched their plan to Chris Henderson, director of religious education at Christ the King.
“She really supported us and became our link between the parish and the program,” said Matt.
The twins wanted to focus on teaching teens how to live out their faith on a daily basis.
“We wanted to help them keep faith in their lives,” explained Abby. “Because going to college, you see a lot of people dropping away from their faith.”
Pastor Father Pete O’Sullivan was eager to give The Net a try, but wondered if a summer program would appeal to teens.
He was pleasantly surprised.
“When we first started this,” he said, “I thought nobody wants to do anything like this in the summer. Yet they’re getting a good crowd.”
Indeed, as many as 60 teenagers show up on Sunday evenings to participate in The Net.
“I remember on the first night,” said Christ the King eighth-grader Alexandra Malfait, “Matt asked how many were forced to come by their parents.
“There were a couple of hands.”
“But I think,” she added, “those hands now are glad they came.”
“It’s a very fun experience.”
Matt and Abby’s formula for success was based on their own experience.
“We used to do a lot of youth group things, not just at Christ the King, but with some other parishes’ youth groups, too” said Matt.
The two had also volunteered together at religious education classes at Christ the King.
The Net is modeled on the best of what they’d seen.
“We start with a warm-up game or an icebreaker question,” explained Abby. “And then there will be a topic for discussion.”
“Then we try to come up with some good, fun games,” added Matt. “And we try to tie one of the games into what we’re talking about — kind of give a lesson along with it.
“Then we sit down and have a discussion about midway through.”
The evening ends with meditative prayer while listening to Christian music, and then each student is given a card with a Bible verse on it to remind them of the evening’s theme.
“We just kind of cover different aspects of the Catholic faith that are prevalent in teenage life,” said Matt.
Middle school teens participate during the first half of the evening, and then the lesson is repeated for high school teens.
“After the night’s over,” said Samantha Ralston, a Christ the King parishioner in the eighth grade at Washburn Rural Middle School, “you think, ‘Oh that game did help, the prayer helped, the lyrics in the song helped.’
“It’s just amazing how everything fits together.”
“Matt and Abby help explain it a lot better in teenager form,” agreed Alexandra, as did Greg Bagley, a senior at Hayden High School,
“We learned about [the faith] in school,” he said. “But this put it more in perspective.”
The reaction to the program has exceeded expectations.
“We see a good steady stream of people coming back,” said Matt. “From what we’ve heard from the kids, they really enjoy coming.”
“Even though I haven’t been here every week,” said Alexandra, “when I am here, I always learn something,”
“I feel closer to God,” said Samantha. “And how much I pray every day has changed. Like, now, we pray at every meal.”
“It’s really good,” added Greg. “We’ve learned about the church, saints, vocations — of course, the fun plays into it, but it’s about my faith, too.
“After going to this, I pray a whole lot more often. I recognize the importance of prayer now.”
Adults in the parish are pleased with the program, too.
“We’ve heard from people that they’re just happy to see something that excites the kids and gets them involved in the parish,” said Matt.
“Matt and Abby are good people,” said Father O’Sullivan. “They’ve worked exceptionally hard, and the program has been successful due to their dedication.”
The Net is successful on more than one front. Abby and Matt recently won a $500 scholarship from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students for their innovative efforts in bringing the summer youth ministry to Christ the King.
“Christ the King gets all the money,” said Abby. “We haven’t decided what we’re spending it on yet. But we’re thinking about getting resources that the church can use in the future for the youth ministry.”
“They said they were in college but wanted to do something [for the kids of the parish] this summer,” said Father O’Sullivan, reflecting on the success of the program.
“And they really have.”