Volunteers from a high school youth group at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha stand in front of a garage frame they built in August. The construction was for a Habitat for Humanity home in Omaha. From left are youth ministry director Olivier Coutant and triplets Jackson, Peter and Clint Plozay. Youth groups have been able to get together for activities during the pandemic, but opportunities for works of mercy have been more difficult to arrange, Coutant said. COURTESY PHOTO


St. Wenceslaus’ youth ministry gets creative during pandemic

Program profits from Archbishop’s Annual Appeal

Five years ago Landon Vacanti had just started at a new school and didn’t have many friends. He said he played a lot of video games, was getting bad grades and had grown accustomed to lying to people, even the ones he loved.

Then Vacanti became involved in a youth group at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha and got to know Olivier Coutant, who leads the parish’s youth and young adult ministry.

And his life began to change, said Vacanti, who is now 16.

The youth group experience led to opportunities to play sports, which in turn led to playing fewer video games. He was meeting people, making friends and trying harder at school. He even earned a scholarship to Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, where he’s now a sophomore.

But more importantly, Vacanti said, he learned more about the Catholic faith and began taking that faith more seriously. He said he became more focused on Catholic morals and applying them to himself.

Coutant and the youth ministry experience “boosted me,” Vacanti said.

“It’s definitely brought the better out of me. Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without it,” he said.

Matthew and Jajaira Vacanti, Landon’s parents, say three of their boys are benefiting from St. Wenceslaus youth ministry – and they’re grateful.

About 90 people are involved in high school and middle school youth groups at St. Wenceslaus.

Those groups have helped give Landon and his brothers Kaden and Xander a “self-driven faith,” one that doesn’t have to be pushed, Matthew Vacanti said.

The St. Wenceslaus youth and young adult ministry, which has managed to come up with safe and fun ways to gather during the coronavirus pandemic, is just one of the many programs supported by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. The appeal helps parishes and schools throughout the archdiocese – as well as agencies like Catholic Charities, a jail and prison ministry and efforts to strengthen families and evangelize and teach the faith.

Middle school youth group members at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha take a break during a summer bicycle ride. Pictured from front to back are youth ministry director Olivier Coutant and students Steven Kyle Fitzpatrick, Elise Cherek, Isabella Valencia-Valbuena, Samantha Friend and Emma Thomas. During the warmer months of the pandemic, the middle-schoolers formed a Thursday night Wheels Club for bike riders. COURTESY PHOTO

Coutant credits the annual appeal and the archdiocese’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the mentoring and support he has been given as a youth minister. Shortly after the pandemic began, the office helped organize virtual meetings of parish youth ministers to share ideas on how to continue their ministries.

“We definitely found out there were challenges,” Coutant said.

Early on, St. Wenceslaus held virtual youth group meetings, with participants joining from home. But Coutant said he had concerns about how the Zoom meetings would affect group interactions.

Even when the youths met in person before the pandemic, he said, it could be difficult “to get to a point where people feel comfortable sharing where they’re really at with the Lord and where they have seen him work in their lives.”

But along with the challenges came opportunities, Coutant said. Despite the required physical separation, the youth group members learned that “we can still grow, we can still learn. We still continue along the path that the Lord has set out for us.”

In the weekly Zoom meetings, middle-schoolers played a game, discussed a teaching and prayed together.

“We kept it very simple,” Coutant said.

The games included household scavenger hunts and 20 Questions. Sometimes the students would open up with “Pow Wow Chow” discussions. The “pow” was something that happened during the week that wasn’t so great, a “punch in the face.”

“The wow was the thing that was a high point, maybe like a grace,” Coutant said. “And chow, of course, was the food that you ate, what was a good meal that you had.”

Those types of discussions were lighthearted and meant to show that “it’s healthy to share how we’re doing and to do that in an appropriate way,” but also to learn to trust others, he said.

Once they warmed up, the middle-schoolers dove into deeper subjects of theology and philosophy. They used thumbs up emojis during chats to indicate if they understood a point. A brain-exploding emoji meant the opposite. But the thumbs up prevailed, Coutant said.

Prayer during the Zoom meetings ranged from simple intercessions to night prayer from the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.

Once the COVID-19 restrictions eased up and the weather grew warmer, groups began meeting outside for activities like bike rides, bonfires and tossing plastic plates for Frisbee golf.

Eucharistic adoration also became possible again.

“There could be nothing more powerful than putting kids in front of Jesus in the Eucharist,” Coutant said, and St. Wenceslaus has been taking almost every opportunity to do that.

Several parishes joined together to provide summer retreats for high school students, helping them to follow Jesus in their daily lives and share him with their friends and peers with “real, practical tools and grounded prayer,” Coutant said.

Resuming works of mercy, like serving lunch at the Siena Francis House homeless shelter, has been more difficult during the pandemic, he said.

Matthew Vacanti said he appreciates the opportunities the youth program has been able to provide for his children “in the safest way possible.”

“We can’t say enough great things about Olivier,” Vacanti said. “He does a really, really good job of getting them involved – and keeping them involved as well.”

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