“My determination [was] to bring people joy and a smile to their faces, despite the brutal times we were all experiencing,” Jillian Ludwig said of her painted seashells. Courtesy photo
“My determination [was] to bring people joy and a smile to their faces, despite the brutal times we were all experiencing,” Jillian Ludwig said of her painted seashells. Courtesy photo

While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly touched lives across the Diocese of Trenton and cast a shadow over 2020, youth throughout the region have found ways to continue to live their faith through serving others.

For some, the outreach filled the void left by the cancellation of regular parish meetings and events. For others, it gave them the opportunity to cope with personal feelings of helplessness and despair amidst the pandemic, and while witnessing so many experience hardships.

Mary Reilly, director of the Catholic Youth Organization in St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt, is the parish’s high school youth minister. She said her youth were “extremely disappointed” that they were not able to meet and participate in events together, and she decided to challenge them to find creative ways to give back amidst the pandemic.

“Their response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive,” says Reilly. “They all felt great that they had an opportunity to bring positive things into a very bleak situation.”

During the past months, her youth organized six different food drives, raised money for families battling cancer and some interviewed direct responders and essential employees – including doctors, nurses and priests. They shared the interviews in school, and excerpts were even published in local newspapers.

Kiera Higgins, 17, is a member of St. Mark Parish and a senior in Communications High School, Wall. For her project, Higgins wrote and designed letters for those living in local nursing homes.

“I knew I wanted to engage with my community during these unprecedented times,” she says, “and sending personal letters specifically enabled me to express words of encouragement and positivity in a creative way to people who might have been alone, since they didn’t allow visitors at the time.”

Higgins has been a member of the CYO since her freshman year, and enjoyed the project as an opportunity to put her faith into action by giving back and sharing love with others. It also helped comfort her amidst the pandemic.

“Assisting during these difficult times definitely gave me a deeper appreciation of what it means to connect with my community,” she says. “I felt that even though I was not a health worker at the frontlines, I still made a difference by supporting nursing homes and people who may have struggled with the pandemic.”

Another member of her parish, Jillian Ludwig, is a sophomore in Wall High School, Wall. For her project, Ludwig painted seashells with positive and uplifting messages. They included phrases like “We got this!”; “God Loves Us”; and “Faith,” and she placed them in front of her home for passers-by to see – which worked well given how many neighbors were going on long walks throughout the pandemic.

“My motivation to turn to service in those tough times was my determination to bring people joy and bring a smile to their faces, despite the brutal times we were all experiencing,” she says. “Being a part of this project was amazing, and it brought me so much happiness to know that I hopefully was making people's days better and spreading positivity to what was seen as a very negative time.”

Another one of their peers, Caitlin Farrell, is a 15-year-old sophomore in Wall High School. She worked with her family to collect food by leaving a bin outside of their home to collect donations from neighbors – netting more than 500 items.

“We knew there were a lot more people than normal who were utilizing the food banks because many people had lost their jobs or were being paid less,” says Farrell. “I feel like we helped many people who were in need during this difficult time.”

Youth in St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, also did their part to support others through the pandemic. They raised money to support the parish and youth ministry, and collected and contributed items to those in need.

Aedan Petrocelli, 14, is a freshman in Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft. He focused his efforts on collecting towels, treats and toys for a local animal shelter that was in need of support. He even used his outdoor, socially-distanced birthday party as an occasion to collect items, encouraging donations in lieu of gifts.

“When I went to donate the treats to Rescue Ridge, an organization that helps take care of abandoned dogs, they had just run out of treats that day,” he said. “[They] were so happy and appreciative that I came by with a huge box of treats, and I felt so happy that I could help them because they work so hard for these dogs.”

Petrocelli acknowledged that the project helped him cope with the pandemic, as well.

“I needed to be active during these times. I wanted to keep myself out there, helping and staying social,” he said. “I love to help out, whether it’s dogs or people in need. I know whatever I do helps them, but it makes me feel really good, so I guess helping them helps me.”

Ryan McDonald, a seventh-grader in St. Leo the Great School, helped out during the parish rummage sale, which raised money for the parish and resulted in donations of items to local families in need.

“My family looks for small ways we can help in the community, but lots of times our schedules are so busy with school, family events, sports and activities that we don’t always have that extra time to help,” he says. “One good thing, I guess, about this pandemic is that I have more time to spend with my family and to help out with things like the Rummage Sale because so many other things are canceled.

McDonald added, “it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to find the time to help others.”