For the past seven years, Theresa Zielinski has watched her parish teens grow into leaders of the Wyoming County Association of Catholic Youth. They learn how to grab the reins of a problem and steer it into a positive outcome by attending the Christian Leadership Institute, a program that teachers young people to be servant leaders in the mold of Jesus Christ.
The diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministry has been offering the weeklong CLI program for nearly four decades now, fostering the leadership potential in each individual, teaching communication skills and different leadership styles, and helping the teens develop self-confidence and trust in one another.
"It's not only good for leadership skills, but life skills," said Zielinski, the youth minister for the WACY community. "They're just more confident in their faith. They're able to share that better in a group. All the youth that attend from our youth ministry are on a leadership team within the WACY group. They actually run our program. Things have really developed from the skills that they learned here."
Over the week, held this year June 24-30 at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, the teens learned the basics of leadership, communication, group dynamics, planning and decision-making in daily large group sessions, then used those skills in small group planning sessions, where they worked out a problem facing their parishes or planned the daily liturgy and prayers. Each day offered a new skill that build upon the previous days' lessons.
These 30 teens who participated learned a thing or two about themselves as well, such as what type of leader they are. Task leaders focus on completing the objective above all else, while maintenance leaders tend to look at the needs of the group more. There are also nonchalant leaders, who let the group progress naturally with little interference.
"On the first day we came here, we learned how to be a different type of leader in different situations," said Anthony Fisher, from St. Michael Parish in Buffalo. "Let's say you're in an emergency or something needs to get done. You want to be very directive. If I have a lot of experience with the group, then the group and I can make decisions together, rather than me just holding all the power. That, I thought was very valuable."
Many of the participants came this year inspired by seeing the effect it had friends and siblings.
"My best friend has grown into such a beautiful leader because of this program, and I wanted to see what she had been taught and how I could influence other people by using the same tactics that she was taught and implementing them into my own life," explained Emma Warden, from St. Benedict Parish in Eggertsville. She described her friend as shy and timid before attending CLI last year. "She has just blossomed into this amazing leader. She is so much more in control of what she wants to do and how she wants to get it done."
Ryleigh Myers, 15, wanted to bring some youth leadership back to her parish, St. Brendan on the Lake in Newfane. Three days into CLI, she had learned the importance of eye contact and to focus on others in the group. "My feelings are important as well as the group's," she said.
Zielinski has seen teens return with a sense of confidence and willingness to take on more responsibility, that remains even after they grow out of their teen years.
"It stays with them," she said. "Even the community they built here at CLI, they still connect with their CLI friends, plus they go out in their parish communities and in WACY ministry, they're still connecting. They're voicing their Catholic faith in a confident way. I think 10 of them went to World Youth Day last year. They're drawn into more of their faith and living it and voicing it."
Chelsea Brodka, now 21, went through the program five years ago. She came back this year as part of a contingent from St. Benedict Parish in Eggertsville that included the pastor, youth minister and a musician, as part of a parish planning day. They found it so beneficial that they plan on meeting regularly in the same way.
"I think one of the incredible things about CLI is the concrete strategies that we learn here, that we can take directly back to out parishes," she said. "After CLI, I remember feeling this way and seeing other people feel this way, like a renewed sense of confidence and willingness to put what they learned into action as soon as they get home. For me it's very refreshing to come back to review what I learned five years ago, and use that in my leadership roles in the parish."