By Rose O’Connor | Correspondent
Sadness and disbelief. Hope and prayer.
These were some of the emotions as two dozen youth ministry members of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, came together to hear about the outreach Ocean’s Harbor House provides to those their own age – and younger.
“You never know who you’re talking to. These kids look like everybody else, and they’re going through a lot. Makes you open your eyes,” parishioner Jesse Lugo, 15, said upon learning of the prevalence of homeless young people in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
In what seems to becoming a tradition for the parish, the youth ministry spent its last meeting before summer vacation hearing about issues affecting their age group and community. Last year, the group’s final meeting centered on teen suicide and the controversial Netflix drama series, “13 Reasons Why.”
On June 24, John Piscal, executive director of Ocean’s Harbor House, presented an overview of the organization, which helps young people ages 10-21 who are homeless, runaways, abused or neglected.
Piscal discussed the different circumstances that could lead to a teen becoming homeless, detailing the efforts involved by the organization to help such youth excel in school, extracurricular activities and eventually, college. He spoke of the struggles the Harbor House youth face. While many young people look forward to the beach days of summer, “this is the saddest time of year for us,” he explained. “Our kids dread the last day of school. School is normal for them. Not being in school is not a normal.”
He offered some words of advice to the parish’s teens, based on his experience working with the Toms River nonprofit since 2014. Have moral courage, he said, urging the teens also to be resilient and have grit.
“Be grateful for what you have,” he continued, “… and that you have parents who care about you and make sacrifices for you. Be thankful your parents tell you ‘no’ and that they truly care about your well-being.”
Piscal indicated that 45 percent of Harbor House residents are from Monmouth County, with the average age of a resident being 16.
“Healthy connections like this group,” he told the teens and their parish youth ministry leader, Jeanne Marinello, “are good for the soul and good for the spirit.”
Following the presentation, the group reflected on being more aware of a problem many didn’t know existed in their area.
“This was very eye-opening. These teens live in a world we don’t ever see,” said parishioner Alexa Bartone, 17. “It asks the question, ‘How can we live our lives as good Christians?’”
Her sister, Jenna, 15, also reflected on the presentation, saying, “Awareness is important to our faith. Now that we are aware of this need, we can pray. Action is important, but prayer is important, too. We can keep this organization in our thoughts and prayers.”
Fellow youth group member Nina Lombardi, 16, reflected on the call to action she felt as a result of Piscal’s presentation.
“Our faith asks us to help others. But we don’t always know how to do this. Opportunities such as this talk present us opportunities to help and put our faith into action.”
The needs of Harbor House and the youth they serve will certainly be in the forefront when the group reassembles in September, Marinello said.
“If we see an issue and become aware of an issue, we have to do something. We are called to put our faith into action. We need to help those in need, and now we are aware of another group that needs our help. We will work to help them.”
For more information on the organization, visit http://www.oceansharborhouse.org/.