High school students embrace life issues through clubs

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 29, 2012

Before this year, Pat Harrington said, he was like many of his classmates at St. Patrick High School when it came to life issues.

Sure, he was pro-life, but he didn’t really know much about the issues or think too much about it. It wasn’t a subject on which he tried to engage other teens in conversation.

That changed with the establishment of “Shamrocks for Life,” a pro-life club started by St. Patrick student services director Emmett McGovern. The group has drawn 30 or more boys each month to listen to a presentation on some aspect of the pro-life movement.

“I initially joined with the hope to learn more about abortion,” said Harrington, a senior who belongs to St. Gertrude Parish. “I want to be able to educate others.”

The club joins several other student groups at Catholic secondary schools in the archdiocese. Most follow a similar model: meetings organized around educating their members on life issues, sending interested students to the March for Life, held Jan. 23, and doing some kind of education and advocacy within their schools.

At Willows Academy, a sixththrough 12th-grade school for girls in Des Plaines, most of the students participate in the pro-life club, said moderator Janet Laird.

“We take this very, very seriously,” said Laird, who teaches theology. “We try to form our girls in the culture of life and the culture of death.”

The group studies church documents on life issues, does diaper drives for pregnancy help centers and holds an all-night vigil for students who don’t go to the March for Life, Laird said. The vigil includes both eucharistic adoration and a pizza party.

More student support

Therese Wildman, a biology teacher at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, said she sees more teens supporting the pro-life cause than in the past, although she doesn’t think students in her school are universally pro-life.

The Reginites for Life started three years ago, and are growing, she said, and the group seems to be enjoying more support from the rest of the school. The group sponsors pro-life days of awareness, sends a group to the March for Life and educates its members about life issues.

Wildman, a former labor and delivery nurse, said she emphasizes in the classroom as well as to club members that life begins at conception.

“I teach that from day one,” she said. “We don’t only talk about abortion, but the girls know that is where respect for life begins.”

At Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on the Southwest Side, about 160 students are participating in the Respect Life Club’s second year, almost double the number that were involved last year, said moderator and theology teacher Deacon Robert Cislo.

The club there is similar in structure to the one at St. Patrick: student officers choose topics to address each month, and then develop presentations that serve as the topic for discussion. In addition to abortion, the group has talked about disability awareness and capital punishment this year.

Co-presidents Stephanie Vlamis and Nicole Brettman, both seniors, said they got involved last year because they were friends with the girls who started the club. They stayed because of what they have learned.

“They opened my eyes to all of these things,” Stephanie said. “I never realized how often these things happen in our country.”

While club members are a small minority of the 1,300 girls at Mother McAuley, members feel widespread support, Brettman said.

“We go out and tell our friends what we’re talking about, and everyone is kind of agreeing,” she said.

Cislo said he sees much more support for life issues among the students than he would have expected several years ago.

“I think the tide is turning,” he said, “A lot of the girls are really pro-life. They see how women have been lied to. They see how all life is precious.”

At St. Patrick, McGovern said he spent more than a year discerning whether and how to start such a group at the all-boys school at Austin and Belmont. Others who started similar programs in other schools encouraged him, telling him that even if only a handful of students signed up the first year, more would come the next year.

But he’s had no trouble getting students interested, he said.

“It’s really exceeded expectations,” Mc- Govern said, adding that he built interest by personally inviting boys he thought would contribute. “After the second meeting, we had a solid 45 guys that seemed interested.”

The goal of the club is to educate the St. Patrick school community about life issues. As in many Catholic schools, McGovern said, “A lot of them said, ‘Yeah, I’m pro-life.’ They knew it was the right thing, but they weren’t really involved.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case for senior Charlie Davis, a parishioner at St. Cornelius. He attended the March for Life last year, and said he was looking forward to joining the group of 11 St. Patrick students who planned to go this year.

“I’m a good Catholic, and I’ve always been very pro-life,” he said. “I have strong feelings about the issue. I really like going for the March for Life.”

While McGovern has heard through the grapevine that some of the boys think abortion is a “girl thing,” he wants them to understand their responsibility.

“I said, fellas, if we believe God is the creator of life, one of our jobs as men is to protect women and children. Abortion is a bad thing for women and children.”