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The Church of Today
By Amelia Eudy

Across the Diocese of Saint Augustine, middle and high school youth are living the Gospel and building the Kingdom of God. Their accomplishments are admirable and their passion is contagious. Meet these outstanding young people who just might be serving Mass for you on Sunday.

Avante Upshaw and Susan Houle - A dynamic, dedicated duo
“Outstanding,” “Inspiring,” and “Special,” are just a few of the words used to describe two high school students at St. Patrick Parish in Jacksonville who have grown in faith together and became lifelong friends in the process. Avanti Upshaw, a senior at Bishop John Snyder High School, and Susan Houle, a senior at Bishop Kenny High School, have been friends since they were students at St. Patrick Parish School. In eighth grade, these two confirmation classmates made a pact to continue the work of the Lord in their parish and their community. Although they now attend different high schools, the two friends have managed to stay close by working as and training altar servers and co-teaching a fourth grade religious education class.

Individually, Avanti, who wants to be a pharmacist, has received awards for his years as an altar server, is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and involved in the parish youth group, participates in basketball and track at school, and attends various leadership programs.

“I had to give back (to St. Patrick Parish) because they gave me so much. They allowed me to become the person I am today,” he says.

Susan was also baptized and reared at St. Patrick Parish. As the youngest of six children, she had an example to stay involved in parish life. She is a leader in her school ROTC unit and wants to become an Air Force pilot. She says her faith life and school responsibilities are not hard to juggle because she goes to a Catholic high school.

“All my friends understand what I believe; most believe the same thing. It’s not hard to keep it all together,” she says. However, her schedule as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, altar server, member of the softball team and ROTC, ZIP (a group that keeps students from drinking and smoking), and Christians in Action campus ministry is intimidating.

Their pastor, Carmelite Father Jose Kulathinal says, “They are the most dedicated, committed and sincere to their ministry and to the community.”

Lisa Daley - Speaking out for what she believes in
Through her love of public speaking and dedication to church life and youth activities, Flagler Palm Coast High School senior Lisa Daley is making a difference in the diocese. “She’s a natural-born leader,” says her mother, Eileen. A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Parish for 17 years, Lisa is well known among the parishioners and her peers. “The parishioners have seen me grow up. When I go to church it feels like home,” Lisa says. Participating in the Urban Plunge retreat in June, Lisa said one of her greatest accomplishments is being able to make people laugh and smile after a hard day. She attends Mass regularly and is “always” on retreats. She receives encouragement from her Youth Ministry coordinator, Jan Balota, C.P.S, who “calls me to make sure I am on everything. Even if I think I am too busy, I can’t say no to her.”

Lisa has been a lector for three years and in the past has served as a classroom aid for religious education and an altar server. For three years, Lisa has also led the drama segment for St. Elizabeth’s Vacation Bible School. She is a member of the Thespian Society at school and works part-time as a cashier at Albertson’s. She would like to become an elementary school teacher.

Karla Rodriguez - Keeping culture alive
A strong family tradition introduced 16-year-old Karla Rodriguez of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Live Oak to the faith, but self-discipline has kept that faith alive. “I have always been active, even as a child. I would go to church with my mom and see her involved,” Karla remembers. “(Church) has always been a part of my life.”

Originally from El Salvador, Karla moved to Florida six years ago and learned English quickly. However, she still attends the Spanish Mass on Sunday and serves as a lector. Keeping ties with her culture is very important to Karla. “(In Live Oak) there are a lot of Hispanics,” she observes. “We need to get them involved, too. I’m proud to know that I’m involved with my culture and I can help them and the church that they go to.”

Karla is a junior at Suwannee High School and wants to continue on to college and become a doctor. “She is a joyful young lady with much initiative who is greatly admired both by her peers and adults in the community,” Claretian Sister Tere Gallarreta says.

Karla is also active in drama club, the parish youth group, and she volunteers at Grace Manor Community Center and Restaurant in Live Oak.

Tommy Gschwind - A young man in charge
Santa Maria del Mar Parish in Flagler Beach is lucky to have Tommy Gschwind at the reigns of several church ministries - and he’s only 18. In addition to coordinating, overseeing and serving at the 5 p.m. Sunday Youth Mass, Tommy gets up for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass to ready the golf carts used to shuttle passengers up and down the church’s steep driveway.

Tommy also took charge of the youth group after the departure of Richard Pagano, who is now a seminarian in formation for the diocese. The new youth group spent the summer raising funds for a trip to Steubenville South in Atlanta, Ga. “We are starting to grow and get good, active members,” he observes.

He has just become a First Degree Knights of Columbus and worked full-time during the summer as a recreation leader for kids in Palm Coast. Having recently graduated from Flagler-Palm Coast High school, he is discerning a career with the fire department or the United States Coast Guard. The choice is tough; he doesn’t want to have to say goodbye. “It’s the goodness that comes from all of this. God does a lot for you and you see that being here every week,” Tommy says.

“Whatever the future holds for him, we have been blessed to have him here at Santa Maria del Mar,” his pastor, Father John Tetlow, says.

Krissy Lombardo -- A woman on a mission
While she could have spent her summer days shopping for the many items to take to Florida State University with her this fall, instead 18-year-old Krissy Lombardo spent four days volunteering to rebuild homes damaged by hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. It was her third trip as part of the relief effort, “Project Hope and Compassion.” “It makes you feel so good about the people you are touching,” she says. “Things are still so devastated [in Mississippi].” And that’s not all. Krissy is an honors student and Beta Club member very active in St. Anastasia Parish’s youth ministry. Group activities include working at the St. Francis House soup kitchen and visiting the retired nuns. She also volunteers to help with the middle school youth group and sings with the choir at the monthly Youth Mass.

With all her works of goodwill, Krissy admits life “gets a little crazy sometimes.” She credits her youth director, Melody Ott, as one of her spiritual role models saying, “I’ve watched her and followed her lead. God’s such a huge part of her life.” She encourages other kids to get involved in the Mass because “you can make that connection with the church so much stronger.”

Her brother, Michael, 20, who has Downs Syndrome, volunteers as an usher at the 8:30 a.m. Mass. “I’ve loved watching him grow, too, in this church, and I can feel myself grow … in this great community.”

Maria Sicuranza - Filling souls with music
Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine parishioner, Maria Sicuranza loves children. So much so, that the 18-year-old is on her way to the University of North Florida to study music education in hopes of teaching elementary school. She volunteers in the church nursery during the 9 a.m. Mass and afterward attends 11 a.m. Mass. This talented young Catholic plays the flute, piccolo and some piano, but her main instrument of focus at UNF will be voice.

Maria has a passion for Christian music and her favorite bands include Jars of Clay and Casting Crowns. She traveled to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany in 2005 with the Diocese of Rockville Centre when she lived in New York, and spent one week on a mission trip to Jamaica in March. There, she befriended a young mute girl in an infirmary and visited an orphanage.

“When I’m older I know I want to work with kids like that,” Maria says. “Even though they have such a hard life, they have so much love. It’s amazing.” In addition to the music ministry, Maria was treasurer of the Key Club and a member of the Drama Club at St. Joseph Academy, and she worked part-time at the Shrine Shop on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine.
“I do realize how much I have and how blessed I am and how lucky I am to be here,” she says.

Jeremy Camacho - A humble servant
To find out what makes 19-year-old Jeremy Camacho so special, you have to ask anyone who knows him. He won’t tell you. “A lot of us get emotional where Jeremy’s involved,” says Blessed Trinity’s Director of Religious Education, Aixa Feliciano. She also coordinates the parish’s Vacation Bible School where Jeremy volunteers.

“He’s outstanding,” Aixa says. “He has no other reason to be here except that he wants to serve.” As an integral part of the parish community, Jeremy is not only a member of the youth group, but he is a cross-bearer at the Spanish Mass, has been involved in the spring carnival, parish garage sale and multi-cultural dance sponsored by the Spanish ministry. He was active in DEFIANCE, a program similar to the drug education program, D.A.R.E., at Sandalwood High School, and he was trained to be a peer mediator.

He has received academic excellence awards in several subjects, including science, history and technology. Jeremy, who admits that he only started to become involved in the church during high school, also found time to balance a job in the process.

“I just find a way to have everything set up where I can do everything,” he says. “I always find a way to do church. It’s just a very good feeling to stay involved.”

Additionally, Jeremy was one of five youth in the diocese to receive the St. Timothy Award this year. This award is presented by the National Federation of Catholic Youth to those who demonstrate the gospel by setting a positive example for others. Faith “should be something that comes out of you; something that helps others grow and do the right thing,” Jeremy says. “I just do what I do.”

By this month, he will have decided whether or not to attend The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. for college. He wants to study computer science and join the Air Force.

Blake Warfield - Serving God and country
Growing up in a military family is never easy, but it is a reality for 15-year-old Blake Warfield, whose family has attended Holy Spirit Parish for three years. Fortunately, the stability of the Catholic Church has remained a constant for him. His father, a Navy commander, was deployed to Iraq in 2006 and missed Blake’s eighth grade graduation.

“It was a time of my life that was really hard. He told me that he would be there,” Blake says. “It was something my whole family had to deal with.” That mature attitude carries over into Blake’s church life as well. Last year, he came up with the name of Holy Spirit’s new youth group, TLC.COM (Teens Loving Christ. Catholics on the Move). Since then, he has been instrumental in recruiting more than 20 youth to the group. He is a teen lector and trains others for the ministry, participates in retreats, assists with Vacation Bible School and volunteers to DJ and emcee for church functions.

“I feel that Blake has taken the challenge to come out of the ‘comfort box’ and looking back over the year I see many wonderful growths in his spiritual and social life,” comments Debbie Hoover, youth director at Holy Spirit. “I look forward to him attending leadership programs sponsored by the diocese …and those on the national level.”

Blake credits his grandmother, Charlotte Blackwell, as one of his spiritual role models. “She does everything - says the rosary, goes to Mass early. I’ve looked up to her my whole life. She’s helped me a whole lot …I get my drive from my mom (Kimberly). She’s outgoing and taught me to speak my mind.”

He encourages other kids to stay involved in the faith. “(God) is always there with you. You’re going to go through hard times, but go to church and pray. God will send you the answers.”

Blake is a sophomore at Stanton College Prepatory School. He would like to become a lawyer as well as pursue the permanent diaconate one day.

Clay Ludwig - A fisher of men
Ask Christ the King parishioner 15-year-old Clay Ludwig his favorite hobby and he will excitedly tell you that it’s fishing. His biggest catch? A 50-pound wahoo (he thinks). But this Bishop Kenny High School freshman is filling his nets with much more than just fish. He loves running and football, he’s an altar server at 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, a member of the parish Men’s Club, was voted president of the student council at Christ the King during his eighth grade year, was recipient of the Optimist Award recognizing his leadership and service, and was awarded the Covecrest Summer Camp Scholarship and attended the camp in June.

“[Clay] is spiritual, intelligent, conscientious, kind and compassionate and a fun-loving young man,” comments Stephanie Chinault, principal of Christ the King. “I like being a leader,” Clay says. “I like making decisions. (Being student council president) helped me make good decisions.” Clay chose St. Joseph as his confirmation saint name because “I believe he should have more recognition in our Catholic faith. He’s a good role model for all men and all fathers. He stepped up to the plate for Jesus.”

This young role model regularly receives awards for academic excellence and attendance and would like to be a business management major in college with the hopes of owning his own business related to fishing. “But it’s not up to me what I want to be. It’s up to God,” he says matter-of-factly. “A lot of people at school and church say, ‘You’ll be a priest when you grow up,’” Clay admits. “I really reflected on that (at Camp Covecrest) and maybe. But it’s not up to me. He’ll make sure that I know …my vocation.”