Xavier students provide retreat leadership
Retreat team members grow in faith while helping youth
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
Finding high school students who are willing to give up Saturdays to serve as retreat leaders may sound like a difficult task, but Sarah Simon, campus minister at Xavier High School in Appleton, has had no trouble finding volunteers. Simon currently has 67 students in the school's retreat leadership program, which is only in its second year.
"Last year we did 15 different retreats," said Simon. "The kids can sign up for the retreats that work best for them. Sophomores, juniors and seniors can serve as retreat leaders. We've done religious ed retreats for sixth, seventh and eighth graders."
The Xavier students must complete a three-hour training session to serve as a retreat leader. The training sessions cover legal ramifications, guidelines, retreat themes and procedures for dealing with a troubled retreat participant. There is one high school student for every five middle school students at each retreat.
"The thing I like the most about the program is the fact that I can stand up there and tell sixth, seventh and eighth graders something or illustrate a point, but they think that I am so much older than them," said Simon. "It just sinks in more when they have someone closer to their age telling them. These kids can relate to what they are going through because they just went through it."
The Xavier students bond with their younger counterparts, she added.
"There have been times where they have exchanged e-mail addresses to keep in touch," she said. "One of our girls was invited to an eighth grade graduation after being a retreat leader. Even though they are together a short time, they make a real connection."
Simon credits some of the success of the retreat program to summer service trips.
"We will have close to 100 students involved in service trips this summer," she said. "When they come back they are on such a high with their religion. This is a good way for them to keep that high."
The large number of students involved in the program represent a wide variety of interests ranging from the arts to athletics.
"I try to get a wide range of kids because you are going to have a wide range of kids on the retreats," said Simon. "You want them to feel connected to somebody."
The retreat leaders benefit as much as the kids on retreat, she noted.
"The kids give witness talks on their faith and the experiences they have had," said Simon. "It's a good opportunity for them to grow in their faith."
"I wasn't always big on my faith until my sophomore or junior year," said senior Laura Arnoldussen, a retreat leader. "I know how much it has made me happy and the good things it has brought to my life. I love sharing it with others. I hope they can feel as great about it as I do."
"I've always attended Catholic schools and whenever the teacher would say we were having a retreat, I looked forward to it," said senior Ali Tseffos, a retreat team member. "When I got to high school I thought it was my time to give something back to others. I think I get more out of it than the kids do. I try to include my enthusiasm in what I'm saying. I have so much fun."
The Xavier students offer five retreat themes including relationships, celebrating diversity, prayer and spirituality, social justice and an eighth grade focus. Juniors in the program also lead a summer retreat for incoming freshman.
The experiences allow the retreat leaders to learn more about themselves and their peers.
"From being a member of the retreat team and having the influence of other people around me has helped me discover the role that God has played in my life," said Tseffos. "Being able to share with others is so incredible. I've learned that I am even more outgoing than I thought I was."
"We especially learn more about one another through our witness talks," said Arnoldussen. "It's not something from a normal lunch room conversation. It's from our hearts."
The students will have plenty of opportunities to volunteer at retreats through the remainder of the school year. The demand has been steady, said Simon.
"The first week of school some of the youth ministers or religious ed coordinators were calling me and asking me, 'Are you doing your retreat teams again this year? We need to get on your schedule.'" she said. "It's neat that our kids made that kind of impression."