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In Paramount: ‘I know I just need love and to be happy’

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Teens at Our Lady of the Rosary find fellowship and welcome at Monday night meetings.As recently as a year ago, Vanessa Garibaldi, 15, avoided attending church with her mother Ana Sanchez because she thought “it was very boring.”But what was really affecting the teenager, she and her mother admit, were “problems at home.” Her parents were not getting along.Ana sought help for Vanessa at their parish, Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Paramount, where she learned about a weekend retreat for youth. Several retreat experiences had helped Ana deal with challenges in her life, so she encouraged her daughter to try the youth retreat — which Vanessa did, albeit reluctantly.Her lack of enthusiasm was still apparent when her mom picked her up after day one (Saturday). Still, Vanessa agreed to finish the whole retreat, and went back for day two.It’s been 19 months since then, and Vanessa hardly ever misses a Sunday Mass, attending with her mother and two younger siblings. And although things at home are not always easy, she says she now has faith that things one day might change.So what happened on that Sunday last March, day two of the retreat? It’s difficult, says Vanessa, to explain; she knows, though, that she returned home “happier than ever!” Says her mother: “Our prayers touched her heart.”‘It’s something very personal’The youth retreats are an extension of Our Lady of the Rosary’s Monday evening youth ministry meetings, which begin with a 30-minute worship period quite unlike a typical Sunday Mass. Nearly 30 youth, ages 13-19, literally jump up and down to the sounds of a live worship band.And although the music might become loud and energetic, “I love the worship because it’s something very personal,” says 15-year-old William Arevalo, among those who, on a recent Monday night, could hardly stop jumping during the whole half hour. This, he explains, is the time when he can “share my happiness” with the rest of the youth and “feel closer to God.”William had been invited to the group by his 18-year-old cousin Richard Arevalo, responding to a plea from William’s mother who was trying to find ways to channel the boy’s “increasing energy.” Newcomers to the 7-9 p.m. Monday meeting receive a special welcome. They stand in line in front of the rest of the group, and introduce themselves explaining who or what brought them to the meeting. The other youth then welcome each newcomer with handshakes and hugs.The 10-minute activity is followed by group dynamics that prepare the youth for the message of the day, which is usually offered by leader Juan Gomez. An energetic 41-year-old native of Guadalajara, Gomez has developed an easy rapport with the parish youth, combining humor with a deep commitment to faith.“He’s very funny,” said Maria Perez, 16, about Gomez. “He always delivers the kind of word I need to hear at that moment.” Without being specific, Maria admits she is going through tough times at home. “I know I just need love and to be happy,” she says. In an area considered to be “at-risk,” she says she is able to find the support and comfort she needs within her parish youth group.Spirited leaderThe spirit and energy among the OLR youth group clearly begins with its leader, who will use outside-the-box methods to get his group’s attention.“The other day this childish spirit got into me while I was speaking,” smiles Gomez, describing how, in trying to convey a Gospel message, he slid on his stomach from one end of the parish gymnasium (the group’s home) to the other, “like I used to do at home when I was a little boy growing up. “I don’t know what happened,” he continues. “But that picture came to mind and I did it and it worked perfectly. Everyone was laughing and from then on they were focused.” He uses every available resource to engage teenagers and young adults in the Bible stories by applying them to their own lives. He plans informal dinners and — having recorded a worship CD with his own songs — attends Christian music concerts with the group. His main goal is to help them discover their talents and skills.Eli Bañuelos is one of the group leaders who did not know he had leadership skills until he attended the group.“If it wasn’t for Juan, I don’t know if I would be attending the group,” he admits. “He would always call me and my mom and would always invite me to meetings and to retreats; he got me involved and helped me out. He is someone very special in my life.”Like Vanessa Garibaldi, Bañuelos also attended his first OLR youth retreat reluctantly. “Whatever,” he mumbled to his mother when she asked him to go. He had been using drugs for some time, increasingly getting in trouble and pulling away from his family. When he arrived at OLR for the retreat, he was on a second probation after violating the first one.“I was doing it for my mom,” he says, “with no feelings.” The retreat was the breakthrough. “I realized that my life wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” says Bañuelos. “There was no happiness. I was living a destructive life, but I didn’t know how to change.”Beginning with the retreat, he started meeting new friends, started caring for others, and changed his attitude. “I wasn’t getting that mad anymore,” he smiles. “And people liked me and were buying stuff for me, like food, which was something simple, but I hadn’t experienced that before.“And eventually I realized, ‘It’s not all about me.’”In 2011, after attending a vocations retreat, Bañuelos began priesthood formation with the Piarist Fathers in Los Angeles and is currently on a one-year leave to finish his studies for an associate degree in psychology. In the meantime, he is leading a weekly Bible study with members of the youth ministry board. ‘I felt the love of God’Juan Gomez can identify with some of the challenges his youth group members face. His own father, Jesús María Gómez, was an alcoholic, which was destroying the family life, although Juan (among the youngest of 14 children) barely remembers. What he does remember is how his father faithfully attended Mass, helped in the church and taught him to read the Bible. His mother Carmen (now deceased), who couldn’t read, showed him “mostly with her actions” how to put the Bible into practice by serving others.And when Juan turned seven, his father began to change his life, getting involved with the Cursillos de Cristiandad (Cursillos in Christianity), three-day weekend retreats that show laymen and laywomen how to become effective Christian leaders. For the next 16 years Jesús María worked at the sacristy of the church the family attended in Guadalajara.Juan, meanwhile, was 14 when he attended his first retreat with Encuentros Juveniles (Youth Encounters), a popular movement for youth evangelization in Latin America. “It was there where I really felt the love of God,” he said. The experience led to a strong involvement with the ministry for the next five years, when he felt a calling to the priesthood. He joined a minor seminary, but after 10 days he realized he was very “excited, but not enamored of God.”He came to Long Beach shortly before turning 20 and went “church hunting,” until he found OLR, where he joined the choir. Having taught himself to play the guitar in Mexico and write romantic ballads, he sang with OLR’s choir for the next 10 years, but his spiritual life started stagnating.“I went to Sunday Mass and led the choir, but I was slowly falling ‘spiritually asleep,’” he recalls. “Sadness started taking over and I was feeling very lonely.”He stopped answering his friends’ phone calls, stopped seeing his church friends and barely stayed in touch with family members. “I got into this selfishness,” he said.He started asking God for help and longed for the old days in Guadalajara reaching out to youth. He occasionally attended Mass at St. Emydius in Lynwood, where one day he answered an announcement asking volunteers to help put together a youth leadership retreat sponsored by the Cavervi (Way, Truth and Life) Foundation.Since then, his life has been immersed in youth leadership at OLR and other parishes. A few of the leaders he has inspired are leading youth groups in other parishes; a couple are in priesthood formation.And soon, he hopes, he will join them. His next step, like that of his protégé Eli Bañuelos, is joining the Piarists — “God willing, next year.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1109/spyouth/{/gallery}

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