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Theology class connects girls, others

By Evin Demirel

This article was published February 20, 2010 at 2:27 a.m.

— Juniors at Little Rock’s Mount St. Mary Academy take a hands-on theology class each year. The goal, borrowed from the book of Micah, isn’t just to learn. It’s also to “do justice and love kindness,” said Lou Ann Gieringer, one of the school’s two junior theology teachers.

And so, on a recent weekday, four juniors visited a North Little Rock-based CareLink center to spend time with senior citizens, doing stretching exercises, playing games and making small talk. The visits help the juniors develop solidarity - one of the class’ seven core principles of social justice - with the older folk.

“We bond with them, we grow with them,” said Kelsey Hook, 16. “It teaches us to have a sense of respect with people.”

That’s done through playing games such as “laundry-day relay,” in which Hook, her classmates and senior citizens form opposing teams and speedily shove clothespins into empty plastic milk jugs and pass them down parallel rows.

Conversations bond old and young, too.

“I don’t know why, but they always bring up the subject of boyfriends,” said Erika Ware, 17, chuckling. Ware said the “sass” and independence she sees in some of thewomen evoke her grandmother, who died in October in her early 70s.

Her interaction with them “fills in that void, I guess.”

The social justice class, part of the academy’s curriculum since 1996, sends students to sites such as Arkansas School for the Deaf, Brady Elementary, Briarwood Nursing, The Allen School, St. Augustine Center for Children in North Little Rock, and The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, Gieringer said.

It is taught two or three times a week depending on the school’s block schedule.

Work at off-campus sites has included sweeping floors, tutoring, greeting hospital visitors, stuffing envelopes, and explaining the dangers of drunken driving to younger kids. “Whatever needs to be done, you’re there to do. That’s the attitude we want them to have,” said Deborah Troillett, president of Mount St. Mary.

The goal is learning “to see Christ in all people” through lessons from the textbook - Catholic Social Teaching: Learning and Living Justice - and experiences gleaned off-campus, Gieringer said.

“We believe that all people were created by God in His image; therefore, all are sisters and brothers.”

The 128 girls composing this year’s juniorclass ranked the sites where they wanted to volunteer. Then they were given their assignments. They each will complete about 64 service hours, said Gieringer, who teaches junior theology with Candy Harding. Although many of the choices centered on children, Hook said she marked CareLink as her first choice because she thought its older clientele made it “a unique place” to serve.

The nonprofit organization provides daytime activities and meals to clients with dementia who are dropped off by working children or spouses at the 700 Riverfront Drive center on weekdays, said Elaine Eubank, president and chief executive officer of CareLink. For at least six years, it has used Mount St.Mary volunteers, who aren’t allowed to incorporate religion into their service because CareLink receives some state funding, added Regina Joyner, director of CareLink’s adult day services center.

Hook’s three CareLink service classmates also said they ranked it as their top choice.

Ware added she thought the elderly deserved more attention and respect. “A lot of times they tend to be the ones you put in the back seat and stuff.”

The precursor to Mount St. Mary Academy was established in downtown Little Rock in 1851 by a group of Sisters of Mercy sent from Ireland, according to the academy’s Web Site.

An Irish humanitarian named Catherine McAuley had founded that order in 1827 to help poor children, women and the sick. Her influence still fills the halls of Mount St. Mary today: “We’re taught to be like her,” juniorGrace Grubb, 16, said.

That legacy has stretched through decades. In the 1860s, during the Civil War, Mount St. Mary was turned into a hospital. In the mid-1990s, it helped establish a downtown Little Rock center for pregnant teens and teenage mothers. Catherine’s House was built on McAuley’s belief that “there’s nothing more productive to society than educating women,” Troillett said.

It’s a premise that annually drives some Mount St. Mary students to give a week out of their summer before senior year to help run a south Texas daycare for the children of migrant workers, who can use that time learning basic skills to better themselves. Time spent on one of the school’s “Mercy Summer Corps” trips counts toward the 30 service hours each Mount St. Mary student is required to complete in her senior year, Troillett added.

Whether the students are teaching children, helping their contemporaries or gaining wisdom from older generations, Troillett emphasized her school’s “philosophy of mercy is always mutual.” In serving society, “we are the ones who are receiving because it changes us, it educates us, it grounds us in realities we need to know.”

Religion, Pages 14 on 02/20/2010

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