Sheila Hulseman works in the garden as a volunteer with the Center of FaithJustice at the Seeds of Service building in Brick in June. John Blaine photo

Sheila Hulseman works in the garden as a volunteer with the Center of FaithJustice at the Seeds of Service building in Brick in June. John Blaine photo

By David Karas | Correspondent

A new two-year, longitudinal study recently released shows the effectiveness of the Center for FaithJustice’s service immersion programs, finding that “youth engagement in faith continues long after programs end.”

“In some respects, the results affirmed what we already knew in our ‘gut’ – that faith-based service experiences have a real and long-term impact on the hearts and minds of youth, which they carry into young adulthood, said Stephanie Peddicord, president of the Lawrenceville-based Catholic service organization Center for FaithJustice.

“The study further quantified that, however, and found amazing long-term connections between our programs and continued faith practice, volunteerism, course of collegiate and post-collegiate study, and – in many instances – vocational pursuits,” she said.

The study – “What WorX: Measuring the Impact of Faith-Based Service and Social Justice Programs on Catholic Youth” – surveyed former participants and their parents in an effort to gauge the long-term effects of participation in the nonprofit’s signature WorX programs for youth and young adults. It was released by the Center for FaithJustice and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Results indicate that some 93 percent of the 220 alumni surveyed still identify as Catholic, 84 percent still belong to a parish or faith-based community, and eight of 10 said their participation in CFJ programming influenced that in some way.

“Both faith and service organizations nationwide are interested in youth engagement. There is a trend of youth becoming disengaged from their faith and their communities,” said David King, Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “Programs such as those offered by the Center for FaithJustice are working to change this shift.”

The study also found that some 94 percent of respondents continued volunteering based on the program experience, and 96 percent felt that their participation in WorX programs helped them understand the difference between service and social justice either “extremely well” or “pretty well.” In addition, 76 percent of parent respondents found their child’s participation as being highly worth the financial investment.

Peddicord said there is ample data about youth and disaffiliation with faith.

“This is especially devastating news for those of us who work with youth and young people and actually witness the opposite in our interactions. We see so many kids that are absolutely alive with the Holy Spirit and are on fire to change the world,” she said, noting that she wanted to see a study done to reveal the extent to which CFJ programs affect participants. “The study findings demonstrate that this desire continues in young people long after our programs end, which is exciting.”

Alumni of CFJ WorX programs, she said, are bucking the national statistics on Catholic disaffiliation among youth, further validating the impact of participation in social justice and service-oriented immersion experiences.

“What I hope these findings illuminate is that our program model is so much deeper than service projects,” Peddicord said. “Our programs really aim to put the Gospel call at the heart of all that we do – this is a social problem, how are you, young person of faith, called to respond to it? It’s the combination of so many contributing factors working together to transform the hearts and minds of our participants.”

She said that many youth and young adults have “never been challenged to live into their faith in this deeper way.” And she also points to the struggles that many young Catholics encounter in finding their place within the institutional framework of the Church.

“As the research shows, young people are simply choosing to walk away or seek out community elsewhere,” she said. “The ironic part is that, generationally, we have an audience of people on fire for social change.”

The WorX programs of the Center for FaithJustice, she said, have historically engaged youth effectively in their faith, and the recent study results support the long-term benefits of that engagement.

“As a Church, we really seem to be grappling with this conundrum of how to engage youth effectively, and yet the answers are right here,” she said. “Our WorX programs offer a proven and effective model.”

Offering an encouragement for prospective participants, she added, “The fact that we offer these programs right here, in our home Diocese, is exceptional. We guarantee that you haven’t experienced anything else like it.”

For more on the Center for FaithJustice and its programs, visit www.faithjustice.org.