March 31, 2017

Teen’s touching welcome leads to friendship, honor

By John Shaughnessy

Grace AlbertsonOne moment, one choice shows why 18-year-old Grace Albertson will receive the archdiocese’s Spirit of Service Youth Award on April 26.

The moment unfolded at the beginning of the school year in 2012 when Grace was a seventh-grade student at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Indianapolis—a year when the first wave of Burmese refugee children arrived at the south side school.

“I was out at recess on the blacktop, and I looked onto the grassy area where three Burmese students were playing soccer together,” Grace recalls with a glowing smile. “They weren’t playing with the other kids. Something struck me about that, and I had a strong desire to talk with them. But they were speaking in Burmese, and I didn’t know Burmese.

“Rather than trying to speak to them in English, I really wanted to learn Burmese to talk with them. That evening, I searched the Internet for Burmese phrases, found some, and wrote them down phonetically on a pad of paper. And I studied those phrases for two hours that night.”

At recess the next day, she saw the same three students playing soccer, so she nervously approached them, holding her pad with the Burmese phrases.

“I mustered up my courage and went up to this girl and said in Burmese, ‘Hello. Nice to meet you. I do not speak Burmese well.’ She smiled at me and said, ‘Nice to meet you, too’—in English. That was really the beginning of that friendship.”

It was also the start of Grace’s six‑years-and-counting commitment to help refugees to the United States make an adjustment to life in Indianapolis.

During that time, she has taught English to Burmese and Syrian children. She has greeted refugee families at Indianapolis International Airport, and helped them make the transition to life in their apartments. And she has spent parts of two summers in South Korea, teaching English to children there.

“I find myself thanking God for these opportunities, for letting me know these children,” says Grace, now a senior at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “My faith has grown from being around them. It took me a long time to realize that I’m meant to be a servant to others.”

Grace has definitely served as an example for the people of St. Mark Parish, says its pastor, Father Todd Riebe.

“Grace’s openness and concern for the Burmese influenced how classmates and parishioners saw them, and helped our parish and school to create a warm and welcoming environment to receive these brothers and sisters into our community,” he says. “This care and compassion has continued throughout her high school years at Roncalli and continued to affect and shape a truly Christian attitude toward newly arrived refugees to our country and to our community.”

She wants to continue that effort through her service and her studies when she attends Marian University in Indianapolis.

She flashes another glowing smile as she thinks back to that moment on the playground, laughing before she says, “I always jokingly tell people that seventh grade was my high point.”

The smile stays as she adds, “Sometimes when I look at current events in the world—all the struggles and problems—I’m grateful that I’ve learned to care about these problems and struggles. I’m going to dedicate my life to getting lasting benefits for people who need their liberties protected.” †

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