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Sacred word, sacred world, sacred call

Members of the Youth Theology Institute on Rock Knob at the Hartley Nature Center. (Photo / College of St. Scholastica Youth Theology Institute)1 / 3
Blake Desmond, rear, canoeing with Counselors Malvern Madondo and Sarah Kroska at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. (Photo by College of St. Scholastica Youth Theology Institute)2 / 3
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School senior Itzayan Rocha rock climbing near Carlton Peak. (Photo by College of St. Scholastica Youth Theology Institute)3 / 3

Nineteen high school students from near and far gathered at the College of St. Scholastica last week to learn more about theology, community service and themselves as part of the first annual "Sacred Word, Sacred World, Sacred Call" Youth Theology Institute. Students stayed on campus July 7-16 to attend classes and discussions with professors and theologians.

"The goal is to give high school students a chance, before they reach college, to start thinking about the big questions such as: What am I called to do? What are my gifts? What matters the most to me?" said Dr. Denise Starkey, director of the Youth Theology Institute.

The students also ventured into Duluth to help the community by stocking the food shelf at CHUM, pulling invasive buckthorn at Hartley Nature Center and picking strawberries and creating seed balls at Community Action Duluth's Seeds of Success program.

"I've never seen people have so much fun pulling buckthorn in my life," Starkey said.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School senior Itzayan Rocha agreed with Starkey's assessment.

"Pulling the buckthorn was the best part. I felt so empowered to do something that was good for our environment and it united us as a team," Rocha said.

The institute also focused on prayer and experiencing nature. The final part of the conference was spent camping and hiking by the Cascade River for two days.

"It was so peaceful the first morning. Then we started hiking and rock climbing and we really got pushed beyond our limits. We had to stay in the moment and work together," said Blake Desmond, a junior at Cloquet Senior High School. "It's been fun to meet new friends and bond with them every day. It's been really eye-opening and fun. It's gone by so fast."

Rocha said she left with a new understanding of how to live her life.

"It's been life-changing, definitely. I was told by many people to just go and do what I love. And I love photography so I thought I want to be a photographer. But my dad, a few weeks before I came here, said, 'Well, how are you going to help the world with it?'" Rocha said. "I didn't get what he was saying until I came here. You have to use your gifts to help others as much as possible."

Ultimately, one of the main goals of this program, according to Starkey, is to introduce students to resources within the Christian tradition, such as Bible study and prayer, to help them answer questions about identity and faith.

"It's been amazing to watch this shift among the students through the week. During the last bonfire, they talked about what they have come to understand about themselves and it was so personal and so profound. They came in unsure of what they were getting into and now they don't want to leave," Starkey said.

The institute was funded by a $600,000 Lilly Endowment grant which will support the program for four years. After that, Starkey hopes to have the funds and support to keep it running.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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