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Despite being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2010, Mary Perrini has battled on and continues to work as director of campus ministry at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park.

Despite being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2010, Mary Perrini has battled on and continues to work as director of campus ministry at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park.

Mary Perrini’s ministry of presence is as simple as it is effective


 

by Sheila Myers
Special to the Leaven

ROELAND PARK  — Mary Perrini is not your typical teen idol. She’s not a musician or a harbinger of fashion. She’s not on Facebook or Twitter.

So what is it about the 53-year-old, diminutive campus ministry and social service program director at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park that attracts students in droves? That brings every kid in the auditorium to their feet for a standing ovation every time she’s introduced at a school function?

Sister Martina Rockers, OSU, has taught at Miege for some 53 years — 25 of it with Perrini.

And she thinks the answer is simple.

“It’s her attitude and love for kids,” she said frankly. “They’re drawn to becoming involved in the things she is sponsoring.”
2002 Miege graduate Miranda Ye, on the other hand, believes it’s Perrini’s unique ability “to make everyone feel comfortable and included  —  that they are really part of something. . . . Somebody with the power to influence others in that way is pretty amazing.”

Other staff and students say it’s Perrini’s gift for reading hearts.

“One of her best qualities is she’s an incredible listener,” said Miege graduate (’07) Stephanie Larson, 24. “She knows exactly what you need to hear  — whether it’s tough love, or bringing you up. . . . She’s the person you go to when your mother isn’t there.”

Perrini’s interaction with students over 25 years at Miege has given her a unique perspective on youth. She has a hopeful message for parents.

“Teens are great people,” she said. “They are full of desire and passion to do good in the world. They want a better world for themselves and their kids, just like we did when we were young. But we have to give them opportunities to be good.”

Bringing kids to Christ

Perrini said students today are hungry for a deep faith, and she considers it her mission to help foster their faith by providing opportunities to encounter Christ.

One way she does this is to plan and coordinate retreats, service projects and mission trips.

“When they go on a mission trip or a retreat and they share their faith, it’s powerful for them,” she said. “My job is to expose them to as much of that as I can — whether it’s working at a homeless shelter, visiting a nursing home or packing food at Harvesters.

“All of that gives them a sense of ‘Wow! I could have that.’ And I think kids are drawn to that.”

These faith encounters are even more important considering how many students come from homes that do not actively practice the Catholic faith. If the parents don’t practice, chances are, the kids won’t either, unless they are given opportunities to learn what faith is all about.

“You can educate them, but they have to have an experience of faith to trigger it,” said Perrini. “They want the security of the faith. That’s what is important for kids — a strong feeling of being loved and knowing there’s a safe place to go.”

But they need the academic foundation, too.

“Kids think that church is supposed to make them feel good — that God is supposed to make them feel good,” she said. “The reality is, it can’t. It can’t sustain you when you don’t have the background, the meat.”

As a former religion teacher and certified guidance counselor, Perrini knows how to interweave academics with action. She sets an example of faith that resonates with students — an impressive accomplishment in a world that pressures kids not to believe.

“I think she truly lives what she believes,” said the 29-year-old Ye. “That’s quite rare. She’s one of the people who is most deeply devoted to her faith, and I have a tremendous respect for that.”

Listening

Perrini’s number one priority is making kids feel loved through acknowledgment and one-on-one conversation. Her bond with students starts at the campus ministry office, a common hangout for those seeking refuge from the pressures of high school.

“My goal is to create a safe place where they feel they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not,” she said. “High school is about figuring out who you are — and there’s a lot of pretending going on.”

Perrini’s safe refuge attracted Ye when she was a junior at Miege in 2001.

“You could walk through those doors and feel comfortable,” Ye said. “You could talk to people, and walls were broken down.”

Renee Schultz, 24, often visited the campus ministry office when she attended Miege from 2003 to 2007. After years of volunteering on Miege service projects and mission trips, she now works as Perrini’s assistant.

“She’s the definition of empathy,” Schultz said. “When she hugs someone, she feels what they’re feeling for that moment.”

Those hugs helped junior Ryan Estrada cope when his mother had brain cancer. He really connected when he learned that Perrini was also battling cancer — she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in April 2010.

“We sat [and talked] out our problems and the struggles we had, how we could overcome them, how to pray to God, how to feel love,” he said. “She’s a very loving person.”

A catalyst for change

Perrini’s life-and-death struggle with cancer has robbed her of energy and forced her to pull back from her duties. As staff and students have stepped in to help, they’ve discovered just how much she does.

“The sheer volume of her work is unbelievable,” said theology teacher Sonya Salazar.

Three mission trips over spring break, one in the summer, one during Christmas break, the March for Life in Washington, D.C., day retreats, liturgy planning, sacraments and eucharistic adoration, after-school service projects, fundraising with students, plus the one-on-one counseling — Salazar said it takes three people to do Perrini’s job.

And there’s a multitude of tasks outside the scope of her job that Perrini has always just taken care of, like cleaning the holy water font, changing the candles in the sanctuary lamp or writing the prayers for the day.

“It’s those things that go under the radar — that you don’t realize are happening — because she’s doing them so humbly, so sweetly,” said Salazar.

Perrini’s impact reaches far beyond the school community, however.

In 2008, the American Humanics Association at Kansas State University created a service award in her honor. The Mary Jean Perrini Inspire to Serve Award is presented annually to a high school teacher who demonstrates the importance of community service and philanthropic work as well as academic excellence.

The idea for the award grew out of a paper Miege alum Stephanie Larson wrote about Perrini when she was a student at K-State.
Scott Harding, founder and CEO of the National Relief Network (NRN), which administers volunteer relief programs in federal disaster areas, called Perrini a “catalyst of change” because she has inspired not just Miege students, but students of other schools to volunteer thousands of service hours.

“Without Mary, St. Thomas Aquinas {High School in Overland Park] would never have heard of us,” said Harding. “And from there, it went to St. James Academy [in Lenexa]. All those students would never have had the opportunity to give in this way, and hundreds of families would have never received aid.”

Perrini’s efforts since becoming director of campus ministry in 1994 have helped garner national recognition for Miege’s service program.

“It’s the hallmark of the school,” said Miege president Dr. Joe Passantino. “I know she wouldn’t take credit and I know she’s had people help her, but it wouldn’t be what it is without her, no question about it.”

Passantino has known Perrini longer than anyone else at Miege. He taught her when she was a student at St. Mary’s High School in Independence, Mo.

“I knew the family and I knew the type of person Mary was. And when she was available, I knew this was someone — no matter what role she would have played — who would be a great asset to our school,” he said.

And she has been. Perrini’s compassionate nature, her dignity and grace in the midst of illness, have inspired Miege students to do their best.

“I look at my problems and they seem so small,” said senior Maggie Salisbury. “Someday, I want to be like her and help others with the same amount of love and care she has.”

Perrini draws strength from her students. She said they energize, enlighten and support her, and she credits their prayers with helping her outlive her diagnosis.

“The best part is, my kids don’t see me with cancer,” she said. “They just see me.”

“I get a lot of good feeling from doing my work,” she continued. “I feel like I’m living my life.

“I trust that God is going to keep me here as long as he wants me here. It’s really out of my hands.”

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Shelia Myers

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