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Grounded in faith: Outstanding Catholic Youth Award winners committed to their parishes, faith

Tex Phelps, director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington, presents Lauren O'Neil with the archdiocese's Outstanding Catholic Youth Award at her home parish of St. Ignatius in Chapel Point, Maryland. Standing in the background is Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, the parish's pastor. (CS photo/ Michael Hoyt) 

Passionate about their faith and youth ministry, Lauren O’Neil and Jason Lerner are two high school graduates from the Archdiocese of Washington who not only were impacted by youth ministry in their parishes, but went above and beyond to influence the community around them. They were recently recognized as the 2019 Outstanding Catholic Youth Award winners by the archdiocese's Office of Youth Ministry/Catholic Youth Organization. 

Lauren O’Neil: Outstanding Youth Award Female Recipient

Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, Tex Phelps, Lauren O'Neil, and Emily Vara as O'Neil was presented the award. Vara serves as the parish's director of religious education. (CS photo: Michael Hoyt) 

When it comes to youth ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Chapel Point, Maryland, Lauren O’Neil plays a part in it all. From packing stockings for the needy during the Christmas season to cooking for the homeless once a month with Meals and Hope, directing the children’s Christmas choir and helping out with Vacation Bible School and parish religious education classes, O’Neil spends countless hours serving the community at St. Ignatius. 

“Seeing how excited younger kids can be about things, inspires me to become more involved, so that they can keep that excitement as they grow,” she said. “Just being that person to keep their excitement and show them that church can be fun.” 

For her, St. Ignatius has been a place where she finds friends and support. 

“I think with everything that is going on, it is important to have a place to go when things are getting rough, and having other people remind you that things are going to be okay, and that things are going to be all right, it’s important to have that,” O’Neil said. 

O’Neil’s involvement at St. Ignatius started with her family -- her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and siblings all attend the parish, and she said, “When things come up, my family is one of the first to be asked.” 

She also helped build the youth group in the eighth grade when St. Ignatius got a new director of youth ministry.

“When I was little, we didn’t really have a youth group at my church, and we had a new director come when I was in eighth grade,” she said. “With her, we built the youth group.” 

Her experience within youth ministry has been great, she says. “The fact that you get to be surrounded by so many people that share the same beliefs and ideas as you makes you feel like you have a home away from home,” O’Neil said. “You know that there are people who always have your back.” 

One highlight of her experience throughout the past four years is the Steubenville Youth Conference retreats she attends with young people from throughout Charles County, Maryland each year.

“They are the best,” she said. “Just being able to go somewhere different that isn’t just your church and hearing other people talk about their experience in the Church, opens your eyes to so many things that you might not have seen before.”

She said it’s important for young people to stay involved in the Church because “having somewhere to go where you know you’re not alone” is the most important. 

O’Neil, an 18-year-old graduate of La Plata High School, hopes to attend cosmetology school. 

Jason Lerner: Outstanding Youth Award Male Recipient 

Jason Lerner (center), a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was a recipient of the Outstanding Catholic Youth Award. At left is Juan Aznaran, the regional coordinator of youth ministry for the archdiocese. At right is Father Tony Krisak, who assists in presiding at Masses at St. Rose of Lima. (Photo Courtesy: Jack McKinney) 

Jason Lerner first got involved in youth ministry at St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg, Maryland as a freshman in high school when he was approached by Sherry Moitoza, director of social concern at the parish, to help in her new Adaptive Religious Education program as a peer faith mentor.

“What ended up happening was not only was I teaching (the participants) about the faith, but they taught me so much about interactions with others and understanding them. That’s the biggest thing I took out of the whole program,” Lerner said.

And as the Adaptive Religious Education program, which seeks to educate young people with disabilities about the faith, began to grow, Lerner got more involved.

“At that point I realized what I was doing,” he said. “I had (the students’) trust and the trust of the teachers, and I was given this great responsibility...They trusted me to teach the more advanced levels of the Catholic faith, and so from there, it gave me confidence and I was able to do more.

“If they trust me this much, I should give more,” he said. 

Because St. Rose of Lima was one of the first parishes to form an Adaptive Religious Education program, they created a video to educate others about their program which was presented at a conference in the Vatican. Being part of that video and realizing its impact had a powerful impact on Lerner, he said.

“I started with this program, and never intended to get anything out of it,” he said. “I never expected anything in return in that form, so hearing I got this award made me take a step back and realize that what I’m doing is impactful. In the whole group, I really make a difference.” 

The community at St. Rose, Lerner said, is strong and one of the reasons he has been so involved. 

“I’m a people person, I love making new friends and all that,” he said. “It was the easiest thing to do to come to St. Rose. I was quickly welcomed in. I felt like I was part of that community.”

Encouraging other young people to get involved through youth ministry in some capacity, Lerner said that it is God’s love that keeps him going.

“High school years are some of the hardest for young adults, to why I would stick with the faith: the Church through all the hardships, has come through everything,” he said. “God will always love me and everyone. That foundation of stability is what I put my trust in, because without it, I’ve seen so many people that have been lost.” He said he draws strength from “that continuous reminder that there is something for me to hold onto and to trust.”

Lerner -- an 18-year-old graduate of St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C. -- is currently attending the Virginia Military Institute and hopes to be an intelligence officer in the Air Force. 

“Selfless service is what guided me to make that choice,” he said.