Since 2011, teenagers from our parish have traveled to South Bend, Ind., for Notre Dame Vision, a series of five-day conferences that include dynamic large group experiences, reflective small group time, profound liturgies and excellent music.
It’s been a wonderful experience for the teenagers as they discover their own relationship with God in the majestic setting at the University of Notre Dame.
“They see and hear from the speakers how they have found their gifts and how they can share them,” said Anne Elacqua, parish Faith Formation director for junior-senior high students. “They each grow in their faith and see that this journey is definitely worth it. They really love being here, meeting new friends and hearing the speakers. Their words truly touch them.”
Twenty-one students from Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament attended Vision in July, along with teenagers from other parishes in the area.
Making the trip with the teens are several adults, who are more than just chaperones. They feel the experience themselves.
“The adults attend the Young Adult and Youth Ministers conference,” Anne said. “We attend our own sessions with speakers and presentations and then have sessions with the students. Notre Dame puts on musicals based on some Bible stories. We get to see them and we often attend Mass with the kids as well.”
One of those adults who has experienced Vision is Sharon Kukowski, who has made the pilgrimage three times.
“Notre Dame Vision is a very special part of my life,” said Sharon, who was accompanied by her husband, Stephen, and son Keaton. “For me, there is no place closer to heaven on Earth than that beautiful campus and its surroundings.”
She said she was able share ideas with other adults about how to keep youth involved in faith formation programs and how to inspire adults and young people.
“Personally, I’ve also made new friends and increased my knowledge of our faith,” she said.
Sharon said this year was special for her, more so than her previous visits.
“It was bittersweet,” she said. “My son Keaton is now a high school senior and will be starting a new chapter in his life after this school year. He had the great fortune to attend Vision for four years and has gotten so much out of it. It will be nice in the coming years to hear from parents and students about how Vision has benefitted them.”
Anne, who has gone to South Bend three times, also is moved by the experience.
“This year was by far my favorite,” she said. “The topic was ‘The Year of Mercy,’ and it truly brought to light just what Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy meant and how we can make it a part of our lives. It also has helped me to learn ways to reach our students. Finally, it has helped me to deepen my own personal relationship with God.”
Attending the five-day conference isn’t cheap. It costs $425 per person to attend, which includes the conference, room and meals. An additional cost is chartering two buses, which costs about $650 for the trip, which includes two meals.
“This year we had to raise $30,000 to attend,” Anne said. “Each family does pay for some of the trip, plus we work hard fundraising. We have sold World Finest candy bars, gift cards, (conducted) a Tipsy Palette painting event, had a pancake breakfast, pizza fritta sales, and we are fortunate that our parishes have also contributed. I also wrote two grants and we received one from the Good News Foundation and the other from our diocese. We were very fortunate to reach our goal. It was hard work.”
But it all pays off, especially for the youths.
Mari-Lea Gazzal has attended Notre Dame Vision twice, including this year.
“I decided to go because I wanted to experience meeting new people and understand what the program would teach me about myself,” she said.
Mari-Lea said her favorite part about the conference is “how they make you think deeper about your faith.”
She even shared her experience with her friends.
“I told them and explained to them about having a deeper way of looking at things than before going to Vision,” Mari-Lea said. “I would tell them to go experience this program because it will change your life.”
Jackie Adamo attended Vision for the first time, along with her sister. She said the experience “has 100 percent enriched my faith.”
“This was by far the most amazing adventure I have ever been on,” she said. “Amazing mentors and guest speakers made each day a new beginning for me. I had an enormous amount of time to myself to sit and reflect on my life and make sure I’m doing the right thing. The campus was breathtaking and each building that I walked into gave me chills. It was so overwhelming to the point that it was beautiful. I now feel that my relationship with God has grown and will continue to grow.”
Anne said if there is one thing that stands out about Vision, it would be the speakers.
“They are incredible,” she said. “They speak from the heart and it allow the kids to see that being Catholic is cool. The music here is also great. Everyone is so dynamic. It is an uplifting experience.”
Anne encourages parents of teenagers to consider the Vision experience.
“I know as a parent, sending your child 10 hours from home for a week is a scary thing,” she said. “This trip is so worth it. Once you are on this beautiful campus, it is an incredible experience. There is so much to see and do on the campus besides the conference. We make sure that we include a tour so the kids can see all that there is there and it also helps those who will be looking for colleges to see what a big campus is all about.
“Besides that, the experience of finding a personal relationship with God and deepening your faith in a fun way allows the students to see that being Catholic is cool and that their faith has meaning. It grows to be a part of their life just like eating and sleeping. … It is definitely an experience that is well worth the journey.”