Through Prayer Partners program, students guide their peers in ways of faith
Story by Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent
Each month, Marybeth Fondonella, fifth-grade teacher at St. Dominic School, Brick, ushers her 27 students to the second-grade classroom of Kathleen Gaspich, where the two classes engage in a 20-minute activity including prayer, a craft and plenty of camaraderie.
The two classes are part of a program known as Prayer Partners, in which a fifth-grader serves as a mentor to a younger child. For that academic year, the fifth-grader will be a companion to a younger buddy, helping him or her learn prayers, serving as a model for appropriate behavior at Mass and helping prepare for sacramental milestones – receiving first Penance and Holy Eucharist.
The program has been adopted in parishes around the country in recent years, with several schools in the Diocese participating, including Our Lady of Good Counsel, Moorestown, Pope John Paul II Regional, Willingboro, and St. Dominic.
“There is such excitement,” Fondonella said. “The children look forward to the time that they spend with their buddies. Each morning we pray for our prayer partners.”
Added Gaspich, “The fifth-grader models proper behavior and posture for Mass for the younger ones. As my class gets ready for Reconciliation, the fifth-graders will give them advice on what to expect when they confess and keep them comfortable through the service.”
The younger students appreciate the wisdom of their older counterparts, too – just ask second-graders Olivia Dolan and Olivia D’Erasmo. “We like having an older friend set an example for us. We learn what to do by watching them in church,” they said.
Fifth-graders such as Emma Ward acknowledge the benefits of shouldering responsibility. “Having a prayer partner has helped me become more spiritual. I am happy to know I am helping someone learn about their faith,” she said.
The program is flexible and can be tailored to the demands of a school community’s schedule and student needs. Yet the spirit remains the same, organizers said.
In Our Lady of Good Counsel School, second-graders receive support from their buddies in the form of greeting cards in commemoration of their first Holy Communion, while first-graders are guided in reciting a decade of the Rosary.
In addition to prayer, the program prepares the way for cooperative experiences among the groups for big yearly events. Grades six, seven and eight are assigned to the youngest grades – kindergarten and two pre-school classes – for the Halloween parade, during which they hold the hands of the younger ones. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when some Prayer Partners worked on service projects together, the youngest children wrote poems on the subject of dreams and making the world a better place with their buddies’ assistance.
“The older students remember being little with the bigger kids looking after them,” principal Carla Chiarelli said. “Now it’s their turn to pay it forward and serve as role models.”
Eighth-grader Joseph Manall understands the importance of a role model. “I remember being small and having my prayer partner guide me through the Rosary. He taught me a lot not only about the layout of it, but how to pray it with intention and purpose. A prayer partner allows you to share parts of your life with someone that you otherwise may not talk about. It helps me stop and think about how I am doing.”
The program has the support of Father Damian McElroy, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, who desired a more vibrant religion program in the parish school.
“Prayer Partners remind us that we are part of the Body of Christ, the Church, men and women, boys and girls, who travel this journey together,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we sustain one another in prayer, support and companionship.”
In Pope John Paul II Regional School, all grades are paired with prayer partners, but eighth-graders spend their last year in the school mentoring younger students who are just beginning their first.
Pre-K teacher Debbie Letton observed, “This relationship reminds the older students how far they have come, how much they have grown and how they are role models for the younger ones. As role models, their behavior serves as an example for the younger students to follow. The eighth-grader feels a sense of responsibility for their actions in school, and it helps the pre-K child build a sense of confidence and comfort in this new environment. This relationship helps us feel more connected and a larger sense of unity.”
Eighth-grader Michael Rodriguez agreed. “Having prayer partners … allows older and younger students to connect and for older students get to demonstrate their leadership skills.”
Fellow classmate Zaraya Robinson said one lesson learned was that the smaller children looked up to their older counterparts. “Whenever we do something, the little kids think it must be the right thing to do. That is why it is important for us to get good grades, have good manners and do the right thing, so when our prayer partners see us, they want to do the same thing.”[[In-content Ad]]