By Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent
While members of the freshman, sophomore and senior classes remained at home, Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, held its junior students’ retreat Feb. 3. The theme of this year’s retreat, “Open Hearts, Open Hands: The Journey to Christ,” allowed students to deepen connections with each other and their teachers, discussing timely issues pertinent to today’s youth.
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A social action project benefitting the victims of human trafficking and an address by a special guest speaker were highlights of the day’s agenda, leaving deep impressions on the participants.
Following tradition, girls and boys were separated and met in different rooms.
“We want to address what it means to be a Catholic man and a Catholic woman in the world,” said Mary Beth DeBlasio, director of campus ministry. “When the girls and boys are separate, they act differently, are less self-conscious and able to speak freely.”
In the lecture hall, girls and teachers discussed the women of the Bible as antidotes to cultural messages that leave young women feeling diminished.
They also participated in a social action project benefitting victims of human trafficking after viewing excerpts of two videos – one from Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (SOAP), the other a 2015 broadcast from Realfaith TV, the diocesan television program for teenagers – in which survivors of the sex trade revealed how they, typical middle class girls from good homes, were victimized.
Retreatants heard Theresa Flores, a survivor and founder of SOAP, a nonprofit which educates the public on the signs of human trafficking, tell of her enslavement and eventual escape.
Upon learning that the Super Bowl is the day creating the greatest demand for the sex trade in the United States, they responded by affixing labels providing the human trafficking prevention hotline number onto the backs of packages of soap, which would be sent to SOAP for distribution to hotels in areas known for high incidences of human trafficking.
DeBlasio explained, “Theresa Flores conceived of the idea of the soap bar because, when she was enslaved, the only place she was allowed by herself was in the bathroom afterward.”
After the bars were boxed and collected, the girls gathered to pray their social action would succeed and that the victims would find strength to persevere and escape.
Mary Fitamant mused, “We might have just saved a life by putting a label on a soap package.”
Lyndsey Supsie, parishioner of St. Pius X Parish, Lacey, commented, “It was …moving…to realize how we take our lives for granted and in sending these labels we could be saving someone just like us. Praying with my classmates enabled me to realize that no one is alone and someone is always there to extend a lifeline.”
DeBlasio said that the student reception was so positive, the school will plan to have additional programs on the topic of human trafficking in the future for both boys and girls of the upper grades.
In the gym, boys listened to speakers on the topics of humility and prayer, and were inspired by Anthony Ferrara, a 21-year-old athlete, musician and motivational speaker who became a champion wrestler despite being blind from birth.
They listened intently as the speaker described the challenges he and his family faced to allow him to not be defined by his disability. Residents of Spring Lake, the Ferraras advocated with the courts to provide Anthony with transportation to a special school for the blind in Philadelphia. The school exposed Anthony to state-of-the-art equipment, making a dramatic difference in his development.
Although some mainstream secondary schools would not accept him, St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, did.
Ferrara did not let the disability keep him from pursuing his dreams of becoming a wrestler.
“I practiced at school, at a wrestling club and I worked out. People told me I didn’t belong. Kids called me Helen Keller, and taunted, saying I was a faker seeking an unfair advantage. I simply used all of that as fuel for the fire. It made me more determined.”
His message, “You can take on any problem, however big or small, and you can accomplish great things in spite of the difficulty” resonated with his audience.
Nick DeMaio of Jackson was impressed. “He overcame his disability and overcame hatred and discomfort. Everyone needs an Anthony Ferrara in their life to hear his message. I am an only child, but today at this retreat I found 80 brothers in my classmates. Anthony makes 81.”