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Over the top

In helping others, students find themselves

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

With close to 300 students participating in the Campus Ministry Team (CMT) at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, it’s no surprise most of them graduate with two to five times the required service hours.
“Most of us exceeded the 80 hours we need by sophomore year,” said Emily Tuttle, a senior from Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. “It’s not hard to do. They have service opportunities every week — sometimes twice in one day.”
Opportunity is part of the formula, added senior Beau Ramirez.
“Faith in God is the reason,” he said. “God is in everyone. And when you help the needy, you see that. Faith is a love for God’s grace in each other.”
Junior Hanna Orpin, from St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park, put it another way.
“Service is just a great way to show everything we’ve learned about our Christian faith at Miege.”

Meeting Christ

A critical aspect of the high school’s successful faith formation and service program is Mary Perrini, who’s been director of campus ministry since 1994 when she completed her master’s degree. Before that, she taught theology at the school.

“Miege has a three-pronged approach to helping students develop a spiritual life,” she explained. “There’s interior formation, or developing a personal relationship with God; then there’s serving one another within the [Miege] community; and then there’s outreach and serving the greater community.”

The close relationship between faith and service is critical to CMT’s success.

“By giving of themselves in service to others, our students are embracing the Gospel message in a way that they can tangibly experience what links the two together as one,” said Bishop Miege president Joe Passantino

Perrini doesn’t mince words when it comes to explaining why CMT draws so many participants.

“I’m not a great marketer,” she said, “but I love kids.”

And she deeply believes that every one of them has a best side that she works hard to bring out.

“Kids want to be good,” she said. “And if you give them a chance to be good, they’ll never disappoint you.”

Passantino agreed.

“Young people are no different than adults, in the sense that they are looking for something meaningful in their lives — something that fulfills their spiritual needs,” he said. “Our goal is to help them find opportunities that will inspire them to want to follow in Christ’s footsteps.”

And that’s what Perrini’s job is all about — giving students a chance to encounter Christ wherever he is ready to meet them, and they, him.

“My goal is to give them opportunities, and God will do his work,” she said. “It might be at a retreat; it might be when we do Chat and Chew; it might be when they’re out doing community service.”

Because faith and service are so intertwined at Bishop Miege, Perrini oversees both, with help from administrative assistant Fran Tucker and chaplain Father Greg Hammes.

The focus of the team’s approach to formation and service is Christ’s lessons in love.

“Christ came to teach us how to live,” said Perrini. “Everything he did, he did out of love. Therefore, we are called to love. And to truly love is to give of ourselves. That is the ultimate sign of being Christian.”

Faith and service

Students live out those lessons by planning, preparing and participating in a multitude of faith-related activities.

The student-led Campus Ministry Team helps promote a variety of projects and programs throughout the year, including liturgies and prayer services, retreats, service projects, and programs for social justice.

During Christmas and spring breaks, Bishop Miege offers mission trips to locations throughout the United States and Mexico.

Staci Gonzalez, a senior from St. Agnes Parish, recently went on a National Relief Network mission trip to New Orleans, where she helped a gentleman rebuild his house.

“It was really cool because he said, ‘Every day I just try to do one thing of dry wall,’” she said. “He wouldn’t give up.

“We finished the whole upstairs for him in three days. He was so happy!”

Ramirez went to Brownsville, Texas, last year to help parishioners rebuild a church damaged by a hurricane. He was moved when parishioners approached him as the students were about to leave.

“They were all thanking us and crying,” he said. “It was backbreaking work, but worth it. The pastor said we gave a lot of people hope.”

John Bickers, a senior from Curé of Ars Parish, went on CMT’s yearly local mission trip, staying at the Upper Room in St. Louis Parish, Kansas City, Mo., and working with the poor.

The experience was eye-opening.

“You always see Oak Park Mall, the Plaza, those kinds of places,” he said. “But there are a lot of homeless here; there are a lot of people who need help. In the Upper Room, you don’t feel like you’re in Kansas City.”

Perrini knows there is an opportunity to encounter Christ in every service activity, and she feels especially blessed when she’s there to witness it.

“Four boys and I were waiting for our ride [in New Orleans] when a man came up to talk with us,” she recalled. “He started to cry because his wife died after the flood.

“These four senior boys were kind of overwhelmed, and I know Christ was there, right in the middle of that. He was using that moment to help these young men see the value of their work and what a difference they can make in people’s lives.”

“When you get caught up in this world, it leaves you empty,” she added. “But you come home from a mission trip and you feel worthwhile.”

Beyond high school

Perrini, who has been on every mission trip the high school offers, makes sure prayer and reflection are an integral part of each mission experience.

“Mrs. Perrini talks a lot about how we have to be Jesus’ hands when we’re sent to serve,” said Richard Sulzen, a member of St. Joseph Parish is Shawnee, who has chaperoned the mission trip to West Virginia for nine years.

Ramirez said one of the most memorable parts of his mission trip was sitting in a circle with fellow students after a full day of work and passing a candle around.

“We passed the candle and talked about how this experience affected our faith life, how we had grown as Catholics,” he said.

Like many seniors at Bishop Miege, Ramirez sees service as a permanent part of his life.

“Helping others has been such a big part of my life here at Miege,” he said, “it’s not just going to go away. I mean, it’s a part of me now.”

Passantino acknowledged that a large number of graduates carry this approach of service beyond Bishop Miege and into their adult lives. “Many even come back to help us with our projects,” he said

Nilo Fanska from St. Pius X Parish in Mission is a good example. He got hooked on mission trips as a student when he went to North Carolina and helped with hurricane cleanup. He has been on a mission trip every year since he graduated from Miege in 2005.

“I’ve just found throughout the years that it’s a great way to meet new people. You all come together as a team,” he said.

Last year, Fanska convinced his sister Selena to go on a mission trip with him. She was a sophomore and only knew two people at the start of the trip.

“By the end of the trip, she knew everyone,” he said. “It was kind of cool for her to experience that, and for me to be with her.”

Tim Smith, a 2008 graduate, has also returned to chaperone mission trips.

Like many students, Smith had enough required service hours by the end of freshman year. By senior year, he had accumulated 550.

“I was just a freshman when I went on my first mission trip, and I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “But I met a lot of people, and I thought it was the most fun in the world.”

“One reason I continue to go is to see cities that I never thought I would see, like New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama,” he added. “And I like helping the students learn a process that they never imagined they’d be able to do.”

Spirit and diversity

The opportunity for community service and the student body’s overwhelming participation build community spirit at Bishop Miege. And one of the best aspects of that spirit, say CMT students, is the diversity of their community.

“Everyone comes from such different places,” said Orpin.

Much of this high school’s charm can be attributed to the eclectic neighborhoods that surround it.

“One of the real strengths of Bishop Miege High School is derived directly from our location,” said Passantino. “The fact that our families come from neighborhoods that represent a diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds gives us the opportunity to help prepare our students in ways other schools cannot.”

Diversity training offered by CMT increases the value of that opportunity.

“Mrs. Perrini has established various activities that help break down the stereotypes that hold many teens — and adults — back from understanding and appreciating the differences of those who come from varied backgrounds,” explained Passantino.

The diversity training has paid off. Bishop Miege has earned a reputation for having a welcoming atmosphere and an open and accepting community spirit.

“The kids like each other. They talk to each other and they get along,” said Perrini. “I think part of the reason for that is we don’t pretend like we don’t have diversity. We work at making it open and letting people be who they want to be.”

As a result, students feel better prepared for life outside the boundaries of Bishop Miege.

“We are developing ourselves for the future by getting used to the diversity all around us,” said Orpin.

“You have to deal with all kinds of cultures — all kinds of ethnic groups — in your life once you grow up,” added Ramirez. “So why not be around them at an early stage, when you can learn to understand each other and understand where each person comes from?”

Passantino attributes the accepting attitude at Bishop Miege to the excellent modeling of faculty and staff.

“Our students must see that attitude witnessed on a day-in and day-out basis for them to know what a spirit of welcoming and acceptance truly is,” he said.

The results are obvious, as students continue to work together in harmony to exceed their service requirements.

“Miege does a really great job of instilling that drive to make us want to help people,” said Orpin. “All the teachers are really helpful to everyone — especially Mrs. Perrini and Mrs. Tucker. They do everything they can to help people all day long.”

“I can’t talk about it if I don’t walk the walk,” said Perrini.

“The worst part for me is,” she added, “the more I do, the more I wish I could do.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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