January 24, 2020

Catholic School Week Supplement

Students lead service program to help fight hunger

Gabriella Hicks, left, and Chloe Olejnik, both seniors at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, hold bags that they and fellow students filled with food for students in need in Catholic schools in the Indianapolis West Deanery. The student-driven “Backpack Blessings” program is in its second year and provides food for 150 students in the West Deanery during three breaks in the academic year. (Submitted photo)

Gabriella Hicks, left, and Chloe Olejnik, both seniors at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, hold bags that they and fellow students filled with food for students in need in Catholic schools in the Indianapolis West Deanery. The student-driven “Backpack Blessings” program is in its second year and provides food for 150 students in the West Deanery during three breaks in the academic year. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Students participating in service projects is a staple of Catholic education.

From the youngest students in grade schools to high school seniors, students in Catholic schools reach out to those in need because they’re being formed to follow the example of Christ.

Many of these service projects are created and guided by school staff members. But a successful program at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis has had students in charge for two years of all aspects of its efforts to provide food for students in need in Catholic schools in the Indianapolis West Deanery during breaks in the academic year.

The “Backpack Blessings” program has been funded by a grant from the archdiocesan St. Francis Xavier Home Mission Fund.

Cardinal Ritter seniors Chloe Olejnik and Gabriella Hicks, both members of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, have overseen it from its inception.

“We both are very active in our home parish, and when we were given the opportunity to potentially give back to kids that we used to play against in CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] sports, or go to school with, there was nothing we’d rather do,” said Chloe. “Service is a very important aspect in both of our lives, and the ability to provide services to fellow Catholic school kids is truly amazing.”

The pair and other students involved in campus ministry at Cardinal Ritter keep in contact with principals of schools in the West Deanery, plan the food items that fill backpacks, schedule food drives at the high school, purchase any additional needed food items and distribute the backpacks to the schools.

“It is 100 percent them taking the responsibility,” said Cardinal Ritter president Jo Hoy. “I don’t have to do anything. They run things by me for logistics and legalities. But everything else is handled by them—every bit of it. It’s been beautiful.”

Liz Ramos, principal of St. Michael-St. Gabriel Archangels School in the West Deanery, said that usually 25 of her students benefit from the program each time the backpacks are distributed.

“What’s great about it is that you have students helping other students,” Ramos said. “It’s not just adults realizing that this is the right thing to do. Students are recognizing a need and are trying to make sure that these [other] students and their families are benefiting from what they’re able to do.”

Overall, 150 backpacks are sent to six schools in the deanery before each break. Although they have helped lead the program from the start, Chloe and Gabriella are determined to continue in the hard work it involves.

“At the end of the day, there is so much need everywhere,” Chloe said. “Having the ability to provide backpacks full of food to children who have inadequate food sources is a blessing to us.”

She also appreciates that the program embodies the Catholic faith at the heart of the life of her high school.

“Cardinal Ritter is more than a school, we are a family,” Chloe said. “Everyone here looks out for each other and makes an effort to help those in need. Service is not only something we are encouraged to do, but it is expected. This project allows for us to provide service to our feeder schools, and help our own future Raiders.”

Since Chloe and Gabriella are both seniors at Cardinal Ritter, their leadership of Backpack Blessings will conclude at the end of this academic year. But they hope the program will continue in the years to come.

“We both hope that after we graduate this year, the program will continue as well as grow into something even bigger,” said Gabriella. †

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