Local Parishes Youth & young adult

St. James seniors create faith place for middle schoolers

Lauren Niesen, a senior at St. James Academy in Lenexa, distributes string to middle schooler Katelyn Doering at a “Be Somebody” youth group night. Niesen and her peers host the group every two weeks, providing faith-filled talks and activities for middle school girls in a vibrant atmosphere. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

by Moira Cullings

LENEXA — If Mary Ascher, Ann Marie Growney and Lauren Niesen could contact their middle school selves, they’d have a lot of advice to give.

But since they can’t, the three St. James Academy seniors are doing the next best thing — reaching out to current middle school girls in the archdiocese to offer tips on faith, friendship and everything in between.

“We had our struggles with middle school and how rough it was, so we thought, ‘We need to tell these girls how amazing they are,’” said Growney.

Growney and Ascher were inspired by a leadership conference they attended a little over a year ago.

They felt a pull to reach out to help younger girls, so they contacted Niesen for ideas.

Before they knew it, what began as hopeful brainstorming turned into an organized youth group called “Be Somebody,’” where high school and middle school girls come together regularly to share the faith in a vibrant atmosphere.

‘Be Somebody’

“Be Somebody” is led by a core team of 12 high schoolers from a variety of schools, both private and public, and is open to all middle school girls.

It meets every two weeks at one of three parishes — St. Joseph in Shawnee, Holy Spirit in Overland Park and Holy Trinity in Lenexa.

The group has six board members, with Ascher and Growney serving as co-presidents and Niesen serving as core team manager/meeting planner.

“We have a planning meeting one week before with the girls on the core team who are in charge of the next meeting,” said Ascher.

Each youth group meeting consists of social time, a check-in question, “witness” talks given by the evening’s leaders and a craft or game related to the meeting’s theme.

The meetings are led by two different high schoolers each time.

“Right when we were trying to build this, we thought, ‘What can we give [the middle school girls] that we didn’t have?’” said Ascher.

The leaders believe that having high school role models is a huge benefit.

“This is a chance for them to build confidence in themselves and to not be afraid to show that they can have a relationship with God and have a good group of friends,” said Ascher.

The group has grown significantly from when it started out last year, now hosting 10-25 girls each meeting.

Whether the theme is “Saints” or “Confidence,” the leadership team hopes each meeting will be an inspiration.

“I just really want them to realize the importance of sisterhood and how we’re here for each other,” said Growney.

“A lot of times, it seems like your faith should be hidden, or that to follow the rules isn’t the coolest thing,” said Niesen.

“But to give examples through the witnesses of these [core team] girls and how they live their faith as a high schooler, and how they live happy, well-balanced and confident lives,” that is our goal, she added.


For the middle school girls who attend the youth group, the chance to hear from older girls who understand what they’re going through is invaluable.

“I really like that it’s a place you can come, even if you’ve had a bad day,” said Mckenzie Heffron, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School in Shawnee.

“Or maybe you’ve had a really good day, and you can come share it with the people that are kind of like a family to you,” she added.

For Heffron, being welcomed into friendship with older girls is inspiring.

“[The high school girls] want you to know that there’s other people that have had experiences like you,” she said.

Tess Nearmyer, an eighth-grader at Holy Trinity School in Lenexa, is also grateful for the new friends she has in the high school leaders.

“If I ever need anything or if I ever have any questions, I always know I can ask [them],” she said.

Both girls agree that “Be Somebody” helps them focus on what truly matters.

“I feel like it’s easy to lose sight of [my faith], but they help you keep sight of it,” said Nearmyer.

“There’s people you know that are always telling you to do things that you know are probably not right,” said Heffron. “This group shows you that it’s still cool to have faith.”

An invitation

“Be Somebody” will host a one-day retreat at Holy Spirit Church in Overland Park March 5 from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The retreat will integrate all the meetings the group has had throughout the year and include lunch, dinner and 6:30 p.m. Mass at the church.

All middle school girls are invited to attend. For more information, contact Lauren Niesen by email at: l_niesen@yahoo.com.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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1 Comment

  • I live in Springfield mo. How do I learn about how y’all are started? What’s there a curriculum y’all used? How did you choose the seniors? We’re all the girls seniors? I have so many questions. I would love to have one started here.