Editor’s Note: This article was written to represent all Northern Panhandle Catholic Schools, by Joyce Bibey, the Rev. Dennis Schuelkens and Shannon Backel.
Teaching empathy and social justice is just as important as academic achievement in the Northern Panhandle Catholic Schools.
Weaving empathy, self-management, social awareness and problem-solving skills are an intrinsic part of the faith-based Catholic school curriculum. Students are taught to not only identify and recognize problems, but be part of a solution. Thus staff and students in these eight Catholic schools — Central Catholic High School, Corpus Christi School, Our Lady of Peace School, St. Michael Parish School and St. Vincent de Paul School, in Wheeling; and Madonna High School, St. Joseph The Worker School and St. Paul School, in Weirton; all work year round to make sure their peers who are facing tough times don’t go hungry.
Whether in their classrooms, assemblies or at Mass, the students in these schools repeatedly hear the message: No matter if you are 3 or 93, each one of us can make a difference. Inspired by the lives of the saints and the words of Pope Francis, “The saints were people who loved God with all their hearts, and who shared this joy with others.” The Catholic school community invites each of their students to open up their hearts, share their gifts and talents with others, dream of greatness and bring hope to those around them.
No matter if you are 3 or 93, each one of us can make a difference.
Why be concerned or make a concentrated effort to help out in such a big way? The answer is simple to the pastors and principals of these schools — Catholic social teaching guides us to be empathetic and a blessing to those around us. Fundamental teachings in this joint effort include — every human life is sacred; protecting human dignity with rights and meeting responsibilities; solidarity; and subsidiarity.
“Our students in Weirton- and Wheeling-area Catholic schools are fueled by solidarity, so we are asking ourselves, ‘what is it like to walk in the shoes of these people facing hard times,’” said the Rev. Dennis Schuelkens Jr., pastor of St. Joseph the Worker. “Subsidiarity comes into play as we take the thought a step further, accepting responsibility and asking, ‘what can we do?’ The answer from the alliance is elementary — come together and make a difference to provide the most fundamental thing every person has a right to food. “Every human life is sacred,” Schuelkens said. “We recognize every person as a child of God.”
They are not only collecting food, but delivering, sorting, stocking and even helping to prepare, serve and clean up from meals throughout the school year. Principals coordinate their individual school food drives and volunteer efforts so organizations benefit not just during the holidays. The Weirton Catholic school students and staff help with both the Community Bread Basket and the Table of Hope, while the Wheeling area Catholic schools help at Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center on 18th Street Wheeling.
“It is so crucial to initiate the importance of empathy — Catholic social teaching at a young age,” said Beth Collins, Northern Regional director for Catholic Charities. “It is much easier for a child at a very young age to learn empathy and gain an understanding of dignity than it is an adult. When you teach a child the importance of caring for others and putting others first it becomes second nature.”
Collins oversees all Catholic Charities’ offices in Weirton, Wheeling, New Martinsville and Morgantown. Her organization provides a vast array of services that includes basic needs assistance and help to families and individuals to help them get into a better situation.
“We can hope that the college students, adults and family members are being role models for children to learn to be compassionate to their neighbors,” she said and added, “but our Catholic schools are making sure they do! We (Catholic Charities) provide a platform in a real-world setting so these children see who they are helping and how,” Collins said. “We help encourage these students also to build a relationship with the community they are helping. The server is not above the marginalized. Our situations can change at a moment’s notice. We are all on the same level. We have a lot to learn from each other.”
Students in the Northern Panhandle Catholic schools are learning through these organizations they are helping that at any given time any one of us must rely on the goodness of others to get by — physically, financially, emotionally, etc. No one is immune to hardships — loss of a job, lack of affordable housing, sudden serious illness, accident or horrific situation. Hunger is not planned.
“Beyond providing literally thousands and thousands of pounds of food each year, I can’t begin to express how priceless it is to have the man hours these special volunteers give us,” Community Bread Basket Program Administrator Tara Sheperd said.
“Our staff and clients are very impressed when they see the students here working. In turn, these students have an eye-opening experience and realize how much they are truly helping a struggling family. I myself have seen the fall of the mill here in Weirton and watched families that were making great salaries fall to nearly nothing, or domestic violence situations tear a family apart, which then can result to financial ruin,” Sheperd added.
“I believe I was called by God to do this, and like these kids, we adults need to have the heart to help. The Northern Panhandle Catholic School Alliance embraces their job that goes beyond academics to help students develop a compassionate moral compass. Educating children in a faith-filled environment is our business,” Schuelkens said. “Teaching them how to make a difference in the world beginning in preschool is our moral obligation.”