HORTONVILLE — Tina Ellenbecker was home with her children Jaryd and Kacie when they were little, but in 1998, when they were both in school, she decided to go back to work part time. SS. Peter and Paul Parish had just posted a job, so she was hired and worked alongside Mary Ann Otto to get the youth ministry up and running.
“It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my life to be in this wonderful parish with all these wonderful families,” she said. After 25 years, she is retiring so that she and her husband, Terry, can help take care of their aging parents.
While the position has technically been part time, Ellenbecker put in countless hours without pay above and beyond what was expected of her.
Youth ministry and faith formation for students from kindergarten through high school are basically one entity at the parish, said Ellenbecker. “In youth ministry, you can’t really build a relationship with the kids unless you’re here on Wednesday nights for faith formation, at Vacation Bible School — you have to be present with the kids.”
The youth ministry program at SS. Peter and Paul is service-oriented, said Ellenbecker. “We serve meals at Pillars homeless shelter. Mission trips are huge,” she added. “I’ve been on 15 mission trips with the kids. Every year they’ve gone on one. The kids help with our fish fry, our rummage sale, we have work days at the parish and they show up. It’s been so awesome to see the kids helping out, it’s just part of who they are.”
Ellenbecker has accompanied groups of students from their parish to the March for Life in Chicago, two trips to World Youth Day, and twice to the National Catholic Youth Conference. “I’ve been so blessed to be on all these awesome adventure with these kids,” she said.
Walking with the students on their journey has been a blessing, she said. “I’ve been able to journey with them growing in their faith. It’s been beautiful,” Ellenbecker explained. “Some of the kids from the first mission trip, my husband and I have gone through marriage prep with them as a FOCCUS (pre-marriage inventory) couple and then we’ve been blessed enough to see their babies baptized.”
Ministering to youth is something Ellenbecker believes others should experience. “I tell our parishioners, ‘I wish you could all be with us when we go on these mission trips so you can witness just the pride and the joy that you can see when these kids are out there helping others,’” she said. “They’re respectful, helpful, they don’t have to be asked to do things. That’s why the job has been so awesome because we’ve never had any issues where it’s been bad. It’s been an awesome, awesome journey.”
For the adults involved in youth ministry, their mission has been to meet kids where they’re at, she said. “The greatest gift you can give kids is to offer them an oasis of peace. I feel they have that here. If they are struggling, they come in, they talk. The high school is across the street. If they have finals and they need to come in and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, they’re always welcome to come if we’re here,” she said. “They know that they’re greatly loved here. That’s probably the greatest thing because I think so many of them need to know that. They are loved no matter how broken they might think they are, what things are going on in their lives, they are loved by us and Jesus.”
The care of the youth in their parish doesn’t necessarily end when the kids graduate from high school. “We do a college outreach,” said Ellenbecker. “We send out care packages to our college kids. We send a tie blanket, candy, goodies, a prayer book. They get a package at Advent and one at Lent, which is always around finals time. It lets them know that we’re praying for them.”
There is one thing Ellenbecker wants her students to remember. “You’re not growing in your faith unless you’re learning. We have to continue to teach the beauty of the Eucharist. Once we understand the gift of the Eucharist, there’s no turning back. That’s a hard thing to teach but that’s the best gift of the Catholic Church,” she said.
“Working with young people has helped me so much in my faith,” added Ellenbecker. “There is really no greater gift than being invited into the life of a young person, especially being with them as they grow in their relationship with Jesus. For me, watching the young people of SS. Peter and Paul serve others endlessly, worship together, question and grow in their faith has been instrumental in my faith life. The young people give me so much hope for the Catholic Church.”