Stories of hope, faith and perseverance from class of 2021
Active at their parishes or in youth ministry, public school and homeschooled members of class of 2021 look to the future
Jun 4, 2021
Traditionally, the May edition of the Catholic Standard highlights a single graduating senior from each Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Washington. This year, we are including features on a sampling of the seniors who do not attend Catholic schools but are active in their parish and/or archdiocesan youth ministry. The students were recommended by the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry and by youth ministers in parishes contacted by the Catholic Standard.
On a lovely May Sunday at Mount Calvary Church in Forestville, Maryland, Sydney Hazoume’s clear voice, singing the Marian hymn “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman,” capped the tribute to Mary at the 10:30 a.m. Mass.
Hazoume, known to some of her friends as Vignon, another part of her full name, soloed as part of her participation in the parish choir. On another Sunday she might be a member of the liturgical dance group. She also has been a part of the East of the River Revival, a Catholic multi-day revival held annually in the Archdiocese of Washington, as part of the choir or helping to host. Meanwhile, at Suitland High School, Hazoume has been manager for the lacrosse team, volunteers to help other students fill out their college financial applications and is active in school-based service projects.
Amid all that, scheduling time to interview Hazoume was a bit prolonged not because of her many activities, but because she was hospitalized for a while this spring. She was diagnosed in middle school with sickle cell disease. The inherited blood disorder causes a variety of types of acute complications, many of them at least temporarily debilitating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 100,000 Americans are affected by sickle cell disease.
For Hazoume, at times she can detect an oncoming crisis in its early stages and dampen its effects with medication. Other times, such as this spring, a crisis requires hospitalization to address pain and other symptoms with medication or even blood transfusions, she explained.
You can’t plan for a crisis or predict when one will occur, she said. Months have gone by without one. Her first put her in the hospital for two weeks in eighth grade.
“Sometimes the medicine works, sometimes it doesn’t. If not, I go to the hospital,” she said. The symptoms she gets are also quite varied.
“It’s like spinning a roulette wheel. I never know what it’s going to be. Sometimes my legs give out and I can’t walk,” she said. At other times, it’s been a severe headache, different from “regular headaches.” In March this year the crisis played out as severe back pain.
Living with the intermittently crippling disease has shaped Hazoume’s high school years, and are shaping her goals for her life after high school, she said.
Being hospitalized during the COVID-19 quarantines meant she had very limited visitors, which Hazoume said left her a bit depressed. Her medical absences from school have been met with incredible support from some teachers and by what felt like lack of compassion from others, she acknowledged. Support groups have helped a lot, she added.
In the fall, Hazoume will either attend Bowie State or Prince George’s Community College, majoring in nursing, eventually to become a nurse practitioner, focusing on hematology. And even before she can tackle nursing school, she plans to become a Certified Nursing Assistant, through a program that put her on the track in 11th and 12th grade.
She hopes that training will allow her to fight back against the disease that attacks her body. In the meantime, Hazoume is realistic that despite her many interests and talents, sickle cell disease often stands out.
“If CS is the defining thing about me, that’s no problem,” she said. “I’m happy to talk about it to help people understand.”
Even amid the pandemic, Gabriel Radich’s high school experience differed little this year from most of his education – for which he has largely been home-schooled. The pandemic-forced new routines to which students in conventional schools had to adapt had lots in common with the way Radich already was being educated: online classes, a parent overseeing his progress, and limited in-person contact with classmates and friends.
Like other seniors who had been active in their parishes or archdiocesan youth ministry activities through most of their first three years of high school, Radich also missed in-person events such as the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life, retreats and sports. Until the season was canceled for 2020, he had been playing outfield for the baseball team at Avalon School, a private, independent Catholic school in Wheaton, which collaborates with home-schooling families for sports, standardized testing and some classes.
Radich is a member of St. Patrick’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, where he’s been an altar server and active in the youth group. He also is a part of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team. In that role, he has helped with the planning and programming of the last few youth rallies on the date of the March for Life.
For the online version of the Youth Rally this year, Radich was happy to be able to help plan some of the content and providing commentary for one of the videos. “It was exciting to do that,” he said.
He learned about the youth leadership team in 2019 when he attended a Leaders Inspired to Evangelize, known as LITE, retreat. The archdiocesan retreat focuses on evangelization and leadership development for high school students.
“That was the most important event for my faith,” Radich said. It also helped put him in the path he’s taking in the fall into the seminary. He plans to enroll at The Catholic University of America and major in philosophy. Radich said he’s already been accepted into the archdiocese’s Saint John Paul II Seminary.
“I’ve been working on discerning for a couple of years,” he said. “I’ve always been inclined to consider religious life,” but he first started seriously entertaining the idea when his brother, Benedict, applied to the seminary when Gabriel was a high school freshman. Benedict Radich is now completing his first theology year at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg.
A year before the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, Rechelle Febrer went through a death in the family that led to a crisis of faith. A priest at her parish, Mother Seton in Germantown, Maryland, “took me on temporarily as my spiritual director. He helped me see that ‘if you can get through this, you can get through anything,’” she said.
That came in handy when her junior year at Northwest High School in Germantown was interrupted by the COVID-19 shutdown. Her senior year also hasn’t been what she had in mind when she started high school. But as someone who works at her best “when I have a set schedule,” it was a blow to lose her pre-pandemic schedule that tethered each Sunday night to meetings of the Mother Seton youth group. The group “has taught me how to stay strong,” she said.
Febrer’s involvement in the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team has been an important part of her high school years, she said. She was invited to represent Mother Seton at the annual Leaders Inspired to Evangelize, known as LITE, retreat. The archdiocesan retreat focuses on evangelization and leadership development for high school students.
“I’ve been on YLT (Youth Leadership Team) the longest, of the current team,” because she went on that retreat after her freshman year. This year, she’ll be a coordinator for the retreat.
Working on the Youth Rally and Mass for Life, on an archdiocesan youth ministry dodgeball tournament and staffing the LITE retreat have all helped keep Febrer active in her faith. It also helped inspire her to decide to attend Villanova University outside Philadelphia.
“That Villanova is Catholic was definitely a factor,” she said. After attending public schools all her life, “I want to take theology or philosophy courses,” she said. While she’s always participated in church, religious education classes and youth group, Febrer said it’s been her idea to do so since middle school.
“My family didn’t shove religion down my throat,” she said. “But my own curiosity led me to stay in. And after I was confirmed I sought it out.” When her faith was shaken by the death of a relative, she went to the former Mother Seton parochial vicar, Father Ben Garcia, and got the grounding she sought.
In addition to her youth group activities, at school Febrer has been involved in plays and musicals, she serves as an officer in the Key Club, a service organization connected to Kiwanis International and is part of “a couple of honor societies,” as she modestly put it. Given the chance to add something to the interview, Febrer asked to include a request in the article: “Please pray for me in my new environment.”
From the Eastern edge of the Archdiocese of Washington in Calvert County, Seraphina Barberio keeps involved in a wide array of activities for her parish and her high school.
At St. Anthony Parish in North Beach, Maryland, she’s a lector, helps prepare and distribute food baskets, and assists with other tasks to support the Ladies of Charity. The senior at Huntingtown High School also played field hockey, runs the club social media accounts for the National Honor Society, and has been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a school broadcasting club.
She’s also been a part of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team, or AYLT, which organizes activities including the Youth Rally and Mass for Life and an annual leadership retreat.
“I found it funny how the AYLT played a role in my life,” she said. Coming at a time when others in her peer group were backing away from being involved in church, the invitation to go on the youth leadership retreat struck her as an honor, one requiring her to take to heart that call to be a leader for her faith.
“So many people entrusted this to me,” she said. “It was important for me to have that trust.”
By participating in youth group activities, Barbiero said she came to realize that other teens go through the same things she does and that there are plenty of people who can help her and others. She also saw that she has a knack for talking to other teens about things that are happening in their lives.
“If you think there are not other people like you, there are,” Barbiero said, adding she would like other teens to know that. By being upfront about her faith and her activities with Catholic youth organizations, she said some people at school and in the youth group have seen her as a kind of mentor, seeking her out to talk about their problems.
She describes her family as “pretty religious” and very supportive of anything she wants to do related to her faith.
Barbiero plans to attend Salisbury University in the fall, majoring in communications.
For Martin Johnson, the loss of normal youth group activities at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish because of the pandemic appears to have little affected the busy schedule of his senior year at McKinley Technology High School in Washington. The typical youth group retreats and the Christmas and Easter pageants that he helped with in previous years were canceled or done more simply online.
Despite the shutdowns, youth minister Nicki Gebrehiwot said Johnson continues to be the teen she can always count on to do whatever is needed around the parish. “He’s always there for anything that is asked,” she said.
This year, much of Johnson’s time outside classes has included working online with McKinley’s robotics team. The team made it to the finals in April and was doing well before a bumper on the robot fell off at a critical moment. Nevertheless, Johnson’s prowess in robotics was part of what helped him earn a scholarship to Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania for the fall.
Interviewed by the Catholic Standard on a Zoom call, Johnson was fairly reserved until he got on the subject of that robotics competition. Then, he was animated as he described the ups and downs of his team’s project, their online interviews with judges and how they overcame hurdles like that fallen bumper and an earlier problem with where coding had been stored.
“It was quite stressful,” he admitted. “But I heard from a mentor that the judges thought we did a really good job.” Other stresses of the last year included several family members getting sick with COVID-19. They all recovered, but Johnson said his mother still has some lingering effects.
Johnson’s other activities in high school included playing soccer as a freshman and being part of the acting club, both activities that he set aside to concentrate on robotics.
While online classes because of the pandemic made it harder for Johnson in some subjects – “it was difficult starting” – overall he said he found he did better in school while everything was virtual. In fact his job last year through D.C.’s Mayor Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program not only gave him some income, “it got me accustomed to working online,” which made online schoolwork come easier to him, he said.
Johnson said he had not yet looked into whether Harrisburg University has a campus ministry that he might participate in. “But I expect the youth group will check in” to encourage him to stay involved in the Catholic Church, he said.
Until the pandemic shut down activities, Emma Miller had been an active member of the Incarnation Parish youth group in Washington, far from her home in La Plata, Maryland, but long her family’s “home” parish.
There, according to youth minister Stefanie Miles, Miller has been a lector for youth Masses, carried the World Youth Day cross, and regularly helps out with preparing breakfast for participants in Confirmation classes. In short, Miles said, Miller has said “yes” to everything. “Whether that’s folding programs or leading the little children for the Christmas pageant,” she is there, said Miles.
Miller said spending the last year or so focusing on improving her grades paid off, and she’s ending her senior year “doing great!”
“We’re all very proud that she is finding that life balance,” Miles agreed.
The Miller family’s regular treks of the 30-plus miles from La Plata to Incarnation began after a turning point for all of them – her mother getting cancer, which led to her death in 2018. Incarnation had been her father’s home parish years earlier, she explained. When her mother got sick, priests from the parish visited her in the hospital and provided the family needed emotional support. Soon, the Millers made Incarnation their parish home again.
“Everyone at Incarnation loves Emma,” Miles said, “even if they only know her as ‘that girl who comes with her two sisters.’ They’ve seen her grow up for the last eight years here.”
A student at Maurice J. McDonough High School in Pomfret, Maryland, Miller plans to attend Towson University in the fall. Though her initial major will be in accounting, she said she hopes to shift later in college into a medical field, perhaps to become a physician’s assistant or a psychiatrist.
Melany Martinez’s specialized classes at Poolesville High School in global ecology studies opened vistas for her into environmental threats, gave her a glimpse into the political workings at the U.S. Capitol and generally “let me dive deeper into environmental impacts.”
The global ecology courses all four years of high school were just a part of the diverse interests Martinez developed over the last four years. They also included playing soccer, running track, participating in an environment-focused club, the Hispanic Heritage Association, the Spanish Honor Society and the National Honor Society.
And then there are her activities at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown. Martinez said one project with the youth group was especially meaningful, helping children with special needs. She also has been a member of the Archdiocesan Youth Leadership Team.
She was invited to join the team after participating in the summer leadership retreat between her sophomore and junior years. Through that volunteering, she’s been a key participant in the Youth Rally and Mass for Life, serving as a Spanish language lector one year, and doing a reading in English a second time. She learned Spanish at home, as the child of two immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico.
The youth group and leadership team activities “have always kept me kind of grounded,” Martinez said. For instance, she said, “It helped me understand how the church is so big, it’s bigger than me. That has given me peace of mind.”
For the fall, Martinez will attend The Catholic University of America, where she’ll likely end up studying psychology.