Loyola Sacred Heart freshmen hiked up to the “L” on Mount Jumbo last week to give it a fresh coat of paint. Last year’s class pulled weeds within a few hundred feet of the trail.
It is one of several traditions at Missoula Catholic Schools that foster a culture of community service. Giving back is a key aspect of Jesuit practice and broader Catholic social teachings the schools have modernized with a focus on personal development. Charitable activities stretch across all grades, culminating in a “Senior Vision Project” for which each student must design, plan and complete a 40-hour service project.
“We didn’t have this,” senior theology teacher Scott Anderson said, reflecting on his time in Missoula Catholic Schools through his 1978 graduation. “We did what we were told by the priests and the nuns and we liked it.”
Junior theology teacher and senior adviser Dave Klein agreed.
“It was more of a compulsory thing. There wasn’t an ownership. It was an obligation you did then, but didn’t do after that. It was something you checked off,” he said. “We hope our students will own it, feel empowered by it, feel proud of it.”
He said Missoula has “a lot of great schools.”
“But we have an opportunity to explore that attitude of giving because of our traditions,” he said.
For his senior project, Luke Bledsoe, 17, cleared two miles of the Lewis and Clark Trail in Idaho, spending two weeks cutting out trees and carving gentle paths in steep slopes to make it accessible to more members of the public than just teenagers with the energy and time for bushwhacking.
“My goal was to try to let elderly people see the beautiful spots,” he said, noting that his 85-year-old grandfather was able to walk with him to the terminus. “He had been a district ranger and had probably never seen those spots before because it so thick and hard to trudge through.”
Kylie Esh, 18, also finished her senior project earlier this month, organizing a workshop for students at St. Joseph Elementary about conscience. Speakers discussed the role of silence in reconciliation, decision-making strategies, and a review of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, among other topics.
“I wanted to better the faith of these kids,” she said. “A lot of schools do a senior project, but it’s about a topic. Giving back to the community is important.”
Service to others is an important lesson for anyone, said Bledsoe, who is not Catholic, along with about third of students.
“It helps us grow as individuals and gain more responsibility,” he said.
Klein said the focus on personal responsibility means students develop good habits of character the continue beyond graduation. He pointed, as an example, to alumnus Leo John Bird, recently named by Stanford University as one of its 12 most impressive students.
As a member of the student government, Bird investigated the names of campus buildings, including one named for a Catholic priest who founded the Mission System widely credited with suppressing Native American culture and contributing to deaths. Years earlier, Bird's senior vision project also focused on similar themes of cultural diversity and reconciliation, organizing a cultural exchange and service project on the Blackfeet Reservation.
The emphasis on service begins early.
Each year, kindergarten students collect food that corresponds to the letter of the week then volunteer at the food bank to help sort items. Last year, the youngsters gathered a school record of 734 pounds. They also gather toiletry items for the Poverello Center throughout the year.
Katie Wardsiani’s fourth grade class is competing with Christ the King parish to see who can collect the most socks for the Poverello Center as part of SockTober. Donation boxes can be found in the lobby of either Catholic school. The community is invited to participate.
She ran a similar drive at Clinton School last year, collecting 501 pairs. In the first three weeks this year, the Catholic schools had collected 1,288 pairs.
She launched the project by having her students watch a YouTube video with Kid President about SockTober, a nationwide charitable event. Other teachers in the school have done the same. Anastasia Bakos, the volunteer and outreach coordinator at the Poverello, also visited classrooms to talk about what the center is and who they help.
“I told the kids that the Poverello Center is in need ..,” she said. “Our students are super-fortunate with what they have. They are, as we’ve been saying, excited to warm the feet and warm the hearts of those who need more than we do.”
Wardsiani grew up in Catholic schools and moved to Missoula from Illinois two years ago. She said the culture of community service is “strong here.”
“They love doing stuff to help people in the community outside the school to be able to be a part of that makes my heart feel so big.”
Often, the students report that they receive as much as they give.
This summer, Kenna Guenther, 17, volunteered with elderly Missoula residents, helping with landscaping and other chores. She said that had a bigger impact on her than the several mission trips she has taken.
“It’s personal. It just is a lot more meaningful,” she said. “They were happy and very positive people. It made me think about what I want to be like when I’m older.”
She also shared something with them that inspired her senior project this year.
“I live really far from my family and they live really far from their families, so I’m going to interview them and make a family tree. And just anything they want their grandkids to know about them and life,” she said. “I’ll make it into a nice book for them around Christmas time.”
Seventeen-year-old Shealee Petrey’s project also was inspired, in part, by earlier service.
Each fall, students collect items for the Missoula Food Bank — St. Joseph’s for Thanksgiving and Loyola-Sacred Heart for Christmas. Together, they provided weeks of meals for 93 families last year with the high school collecting more than 25,000 pounds. Last year, as a student council member, she helped deliver the boxes of food to homes.
“It gave me a different perspective on life,” she said. “I saw people who were in need and, like, truly needed things, whereas I’ve always had food and I’ve never had to worry about that.”
For her project, she wanted to get beyond the extended family students find at Missoula Catholic Schools to serve others “who need it more.”
“With one of my friends, we’ll get a small group of kids together to do a cooking and crafts class for them,” she said. “There’s more kids that need help, and in Missoula Catholic Schools there already are a lot of people that are there for them.”
“We live in a community that’s really blessed and we have so much here. We’re trying to give back to our community and those who don’t have as much as we do,” she said. “Service is why we’re here. We serve God through serving our communities.”