Program lights the way for teens in need

Liz Miller is the youth outreach coordinator of ReachKCK, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas that provides a safe place for inner-city high school teens to develop their talents and faith. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

The setting is typical of teen life — a coffee bar, a music room, an art studio.

Inside the walls of the ReachKCK youth ministry hub, however, the purpose isn’t to serve bored teens.

The mission is to provide a safe place for inner-city high school teens to develop their talents and their faith.

Located on the campus of Blessed Sacrament Church in Kansas City, Kansas, ReachKCK is a youth outreach ministry of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. It benefits from the leadership of seven pastors and several associate pastors, and serves 11 parishes. But the local community makes up the heart of the ministry.

However, its daily operation is fueled by the energy, enthusiasm and devotion of ReachKCK youth outreach coordinator Liz Miller.

“There’s so much hope and goodness in Kansas City, Kansas,” Miller said. “There’s respect for the community and for what’s going on at this campus.”

Miller is the first to say the ministry tries to be “wherever the teens are” in terms of program offerings.

ReachKCK is home to so many inviting events and activities, the teens are drawn to its campus. The youth ministry hosts music workshops, open gyms and open mic nights.

There are evenings dedicated to eucharistic adoration for the teens, ongoing formation nights that teach teens how to minister to each other through leadership and retreat training, and occasional service opportunities.

Additionally, ReachKCK connects teens to opportunities to attend Camp Tekakwitha (the archdiocese’s camp that combines outdoor activities with spiritual instruction), youth conferences, retreats and a confirmation bonfire rally (a first for many inner-city confirmation students).

In the past, ReachKCK has held art classes and game nights, activities that Miller hopes to reintroduce with the help of additional volunteers.

Miller is a familiar face during lunch periods at Wyandotte, F.L. Schlagle and Bishop Ward high schools, and Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. She is welcomed by administrators who embrace ReachKCK’s mission to serve the youth of the city.

She is a regular presence in many Wyandotte County parishes as well, where she works with adults to create sustainable parish-based ministries for under-resourced parishes. As part of that work, Miller conducts two trainings annually for adult youth workers (youth ministers, catechists, parents, etc.) and routinely meets with pastors, directors of religious education and volunteers from Kansas City, Kansas, parishes to help them develop teen-friendly ministries at the local level.

According to Miller, it is all part of a critical piece of the puzzle in building an organic and sustainable youth ministry across Wyandotte County. And one that every single parish in the archdiocese helps make happen, thanks to a special assessment inaugurated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at the program’s inception.

There was a time when Miller doubted her abilities to undertake this kind of work. Raised Catholic in St. Louis, Miller watched her father spend many years in youth ministry.

When she graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, with degrees in social work and Spanish and a minor in theology, she never considered it for herself.

“Truthfully, it wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of, because I knew it would be hard work,” Miller said. “I was familiar with the joys — and especially the trials — of youth ministry.

“But I now believe God wanted me here.”

Deacon Dana Nearmyer, the secretary of the evangelization division of the archdiocese, wanted Miller there, too. He encouraged her to take the job.

Once she did, Miller began by shaping available space at Blessed Sacrament into the teen-friendly space it is today and developing relationships within the community.

Miller gave credit to the Holy Spirit for bringing it all together.

At the same time, she began building trust among the teens served by ReachKCK.

The program hosts a diverse population where English is often a second language, and Miller soon learned that many of her kids’ families live in households whose incomes fall well below the poverty line.

Some teens come from very stable, loving families, while others are struggling with issues of abuse, abandonment or foster care.

Anxiety, depression and anger are common among the kids. Some have been touched by crime, gangs, drugs and violence. ReachKCK has an open door policy, and there are no financial restrictions.

According to Miller, about 30 percent of the teens that participate in ReachKCK activities are not Catholic, which shapes the ReachKCK community, she said.

“The teens here are no different than anywhere else. But their struggles are different,” Miller said. “There is a lot of anger and anxiety at first.”

“Sometimes, I sense the anger and we talk about it,” she explained. “They are initially on their guard. . . . Then the tone shifts.

“There’s trust, a feeling of family, community and a sacred presence here. They feel safe.”

Miller takes her inspiration from Pope Francis’ own words, when he said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

“I live that. I want us to get our hands dirty, to go out to the streets and help the people who are broken or hurt. I take that literally,” Miller said.

“To know we can offer teens that live in the inner city the best they deserve, the same as any teen in other parts of the archdiocese,” she added, “is amazing.”

Likewise, Miller is cheered on by Archbishop Naumann, who lives near the Blessed Sacrament campus. Committed to the youth in Kansas City, Miller said she routinely receives praise and support from the archbishop.

Noting his belief in the “vibrancy and buoyancy” of the area, Archbishop Naumann’s leadership is critical to raising the necessary funding to support the outreach.

Beyond financial support, Miller said ReachKCK has other needs, including what she calls “people power.”

While Miller has about five regularly dedicated adult volunteers to help carry out the ReachKCK mission, she is always looking for more. In fact, Miller says the ministry will add new activities to match the talents of its volunteers.

For example, when a guitarist came forward, ReachKCK began offering guitar lessons. The teens even get to keep the guitars. She encourages other parish youth ministries to look for ways to partner with ReachKCK.

“When it comes to adults, I’d love to have a conversation with them,” Miller said. “Our teens need the discipleship of adults. There was once a group of teens talking about God as a father and I asked, ‘How many of you have a father? How many of you live with your biological father?’

“’Only one teen raised his hand. We are in a fatherhood crisis.”

Most of all, Miller asks for prayers — not only for the teens of ReachKCK, but for all teens in the archdiocese.

“Teens need to feel welcome,” Miller said. “I want them to walk around feeling valued, cared for and loved, no matter their faith. At some point in their lives, in their darkest hour, I hope they recognize there was a light.

“And that light was someone in the church pointing them to Christ.”

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