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March 12, 2017

Children at Ascension in Oak Park use Lent to help the environment

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Children at Ascension Parish in Oak Park are participating in a different kind of Lenten fast this year, one that’s intended to preserve the resources of the earth in the spirit of “Laudato Si,’” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter on the importance of caring for the environment.

The Children’s Lenten Project, a parish tradition since 2000, uses a calendar of suggested activities — from turning off electronics and going outside to play to planting trees to shortening showers — to emphasize simple steps that families and children can take to avoid polluting the environment and to preserve natural resources, said Diane Moriarty, the director of religious education.

The original idea, Moriarty said, was to have each family do a “carbon fast” and donate the difference in what they spent on energy. But Lent isn’t long enough for that to work, she said, so they focused on simpler changes that families can incorporate into their routines going forward.

“It can be something like using reusable cloths instead of paper towels,” she said, which was one suggestion for the week focusing on preserving trees.

Caring for the earth and its resources — including combating climate change — is a work of mercy, Moriarty said, and has always been part of Catholic social teaching.

“With what’s happening with climate change, it’s becoming more and more imperative,” she said.

The activities were planned and selected with the help the parish’s Honor Our Mother Earth (HOME) committee, which was formed after Laudato Si’s release.

In a nod to more traditional almsgiving, families are asked to put money in their Lenten banks each time they do one of the things on the calendar. Over the past several years, the parish has collected about $10,000 a year for its chosen charities.

This year’s collection will go to Trees that Feed Foundation to buy breadfruit trees to be planted in Haiti. Planting the trees will counteract deforestation in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and provide economic resources for farmers who plant the trees and harvest the fruit. The fruit is processed by local companies into various products, including a fortified porridge mix that Trees that Feed and other non-profits buy to provide meals to poor schoolchildren in Haiti. The goal, Moriarty said, is for Ascension’s families to donate enough money to provide 466 new breadfruit trees and purchase 9,900 meals.

Students in the parish school are also participating in the Lenten plan, said Annie Broockmeier, a kindergarten teacher at Ascension School. It’s also a hit with educators, who can incorporate themes of caring for the earth in their teaching on subjects from science and math to writing.

When it comes to faith formation and catechesis, “it’s a natural connection,” Broockmeier said. “With Pope Francis leading us now, there’s definitely an itch to help the earth.”

For anyone who thinks kindergartners can’t understand the importance of caring for the earth or the impact their own actions can have, Broockmeier points to the way her students have embraced the school’s effort to reduce waste in the lunchroom, another initiative of the HOME committee.

Rather than throwing away whatever is left on their tray or lunch bag, students separate the items into recycling, compost or landfill bins — with the goal of having no waste in the landfill bin.

“The younger kids are more excited about it than the older kids,” Broockmeier said. “Even though the older kids still do it. The younger kids can teach the kids who are even smaller, and they love to do that.”