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Youth ministers keep a cross-county connection

“How do you do your service Saturdays? How does that work?”

Theresa Bonner has only been the director of youth ministry at the Parish of the Precious Blood in Caribou for a short time, so she is still learning the job. Fortunately for Theresa, she has plenty of support, not only from within her parish but from youth ministers across Aroostook County.

“We have a couple of lawnmowers, a bunch of rakes and shovels, and then, we split into groups. They have a list of where to go and what to do to help,” answers Theresa Griffin, youth minister at St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Houlton, explaining how the youth ministry service days operate. “It’s a big service to the older people. A lot of them really need help.”

Bonner and Griffin are both members of ACYMA, the Adult Catholic Youth Ministry Association.  ACYMA is made up of youth ministers from across Aroostook County.  In addition to Bonner and Griffin, its members include Donna Deschaine from Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Parish in Madawaska, Joy Deschaine from St. Peter Chanel Parish in Van Buren, and Lynette Sirois from St. John Vianney Parish in Fort Kent.  The group meets once a month, either in person or through videoconferencing, to share ideas, as well as successes, struggles, and strategies.  Often, adult volunteers are invited to participate as well.

“The goal is to keep us all connected, to be able to plan events and check in with each other, and to support each other,” says Lynette.

“Sometimes, you’re just having this little problem, something that Lynette might be able to help me out with or whatever.  Then, we share our programs,” says Donna. “The thing that I enjoy the most is when we do our parish sharing. It’s finding out what all the other youth ministries have done. What they’ve done the last month. ‘Oh, that sounds cool. Maybe we could do that.’”

Although their parishes span a distance of more than 100 miles, there is a closeness shared among the ACYMA members.

“You can see the people who have been doing this for a while -- how the camaraderie is and the shared respect they have for one another and the support they give everybody. Donna is always saying, ‘Call me any time.’ And I have.   Just the relational ministry -- this is core right here. This is it,” says Theresa Bonner.

“It’s relational,” agrees Lynette. “You’re relating to the kids, and you’re also relating to each other. You’re supporting each other, and you’re giving ideas to each other.”

ACYMA has existed longer than any of these youth ministers can remember.  Donna has been attending the meetings since she started in youth ministry 25 years ago. She says every time there is talk of no longer getting together, reasons arise to keep the group going, often from the youths these ministers are serving.

“Our kids love the connections. By doing this, it promotes the activities that are happening in the County,” says Lynette. “I’ve had multiple times when kids in my parish were asking, ‘When is the next time we’re doing something with the County?’ They love it,” says Lynette.

“When we haven’t done anything for a while, the kids are asking us: ‘When are you going to invite Fort Kent?’ or ‘When are we going to do something together?’” says Donna.

At their May meeting, ACYMA members tossed around ideas for a possible joint picnic to be held in Caribou in August, with each parish group contributing to it.  It is also through ACYMA that two countywide events, the Fall Fest and the Spring Fling, are coordinated.

“These are one-day events. We usually try to start with Mass, and then, we’ll have lunch, and then, we’ll have a couple workshops. The workshops are done by the youth ministries themselves,” explains Donna. “Fall-fest in the afternoon is always community service.”

ACYMA members also invite teens from other groups to their own events.  For instance, youths from other County parishes are planning to go on a Parish of the Precious Blood trip to Steubenville East in Lowell, Mass., this July, while Donna let her ACYMA counterparts know that their young people would be welcome at an upcoming movie night, and Lynette shared information about spirit nights held quarterly in Fort Kent.

“I’m really impressed by the dedication of these youth ministers, especially given the fact that most of them are not full time in their ministry,” says Judy Michaud, a member of the diocese’s Office of Lifelong Faith Formation, who is based in Aroostook County and often joins the ACYMA meetings. “The ACYMA group really benefits the youth.  These adults are always working to come up with ideas for regional gatherings where the kids can grow in their faith. The socialization that comes from these gatherings really paves the way for a circle of friends beyond their parish borders.”

The ACYMA meetings also provide an opportunity to discuss plans to travel to diocesan youth events such as the annual Journey retreat and youth convention, both held in southern parts of the state.  Donna says thanks to the friendships already made among the teens and youth leaders, the long bus trips are far from tedious.

“They’re getting on that bus already knowing these kids and having made connections with them,” says Donna. “It’s a great bonding opportunity.”

Members of ACYMA say youth ministers from other parts of the state have inquired about how they make the group work.  They admit it does take a commitment, but they say the benefits are worth it.

“It’s a really good place for us to touch base with one another, because other than that, we really wouldn’t. I’m all the way up in Fort Kent. I’m my own island,” says Lynette.

“If we had not kept thing going, not had those County events as we call them, the kids would hardly meet,” says Donna.  “I think it’s a great opportunity.”