Catholic collegians help middle schoolers grow in faith: ‘Power Hour’

Catholic Hokie Nick Eastman and St. John Neumann Academy, Blacksburg, students take part in a “Lectio Divina” (Divine Reading) during a Power Hour. Youth minister Austin Mee is at the far left. (Photo/Joe Staniunas)

As classes come to an end in the second week of Easter, middle school students at St. John Neumann Academy (SJNA), Blacksburg, are looking forward to the weekend. But before the parade of cars forms to pick them up, they are spending their last period with some older friends who are helping them get closer to Christ.

“After a long week and after a long Friday, we get to chill with God for 45 minutes,” eighth grader Jacob Hodock said, just before dismissal. “So, we just have that time to think and get to know maybe the other students and just reflect with God.”

Another eighth grader, Vinny Morris, said he likes ending the week this way “because it gives me a chance to pray with other people that I know and am friends with, and it gives me a chance to reflect.”

Those friends include students from Catholic Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech who are in charge of what’s called Power Hour. Every Friday, aside from school holidays, they lead sessions that rotate through Scripture study, lives of the saints and Christian virtues.

“I love how much the college students have really taken charge,” said Austin Mee, one of the program coordinators. “There are some weeks I can just show up and they have everything handled. They’re ready to lead. They give opening remarks or comments or even a talk. They prepare the sheets for adoration and Scripture study.”

For one of the Friday sessions, about three dozen Neumann Knights broke into two groups. While one group went to the school’s chapel for adoration, the rest took part in “Lectio Divina” (Divine Reading).

Virginia Tech sophomore Virginia Fehrer read a passage from the Gospel of Mark, describing Christ’s appearances to Mary Magdalene and two disciples. She asked the students to meditate about what they’ve just heard, pray about it and contemplate being in the presence of God.

“I grew up doing youth ministry and my life was kind of changed by it,” Fehrer said. “I’ve just had lots of encounters with God growing up through middle school mostly, high school, and I feel this is kind of my way to pay it back, to share relatable experiences with them.”

The two groups switched places, with those who completed the “Lectio Divina” exercise now spending time in adoration, led by SJNA’s chaplain, Father Cassidy Stinson, also administrator of St. Jude, Christiansburg.

He believes the college students are making a difference in the lives of these young people. “Someone who’s very close to them in age as the college students are more likely to be seen as role models,” he said.

“Seeing someone only a couple of years older than themselves taking their faith seriously makes it more real for them or something they’re more likely to latch on to, to make it their own, especially at a formative age like middle school,” Father Stinson continued.

The Power Hour program at SJNA began last fall, a collaborative effort between SJNA director Julia Wharton, SJNA head teacher Jenny Mishoe, Virginia Tech Catholic Campus Ministry director Chris Hitzelberger and Mee, a member of Youth Apostles, which is a group of priests and lay people dedicated to bringing young people closer to the Lord.

“We want our students to see that there are young people beyond SJNA who are passionate about their faith – it is not just parents, grandparents, or teachers who are living faith-filled lives,” Wharton and Mishoe said in response to an email. “This provides another opportunity beyond what students learn and experience in theology class, through school service projects, Masses or prayer services to put faith in action and be inspired to grow their relationships with God.”

Mee studied mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and was also involved in Catholic Campus Ministry. After graduating, he took a job in Northern Virginia working on automatic track inspection systems for railroads but stayed active in youth ministry. About three years ago, he switched jobs and made tracks for his college town, becoming youth ministry coordinator at St. Mary’s, Blacksburg, and Holy Spirit, Christiansburg, and the main recruiter for Power Hour mentors.

Among those that Mee reached out to was Joseph Clement, a senior who’s going to be teaching middle school English at the Basilica School of St. Mary in Alexandria after graduation. Raised in Dumfries, he received a parochial education.

“Great upbringing, great catechesis,” Clement said. “And then once I was a little bit older and was able to pour that back into these programs, I was able to have some chances to do that. I’ve been going from the start and it’s been such a great experience.”

“I just was really excited to share the faith with middle schoolers,” said Caeli McGraw, a Virginia Tech senior. “I love working with kids and just having the opportunity to do Bible study with them or holy hour, have a couple fun Friday activities with them, is a really great way to build community, build faith.”

McGraw is also going to be a teacher after graduating, working at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia. “Seeing that pure joy that they have and excitement has sparked my faith and my love for building my relationship with God more,” she said.

Some fun is built into Power Hour, too. Since Pope St. John Paul II loved theater when he was young, the SJNA students created and performed skits about his life, based on prompts from the Virginia Tech mentors. (The sixth graders were judged the best.) A mock snowball fight once followed discussion of another saint who loved the outdoors.

Even during the first few months of the program, Mee said he has seen in some SJNA students “these little glimpses that faith is not just in a book, just in my family, but is a relationship with God.”


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