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Talks educate youth on sanctity of life and sexuality

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BRIGHTON —Imagine standing in front of a room full of teenagers and loudly proclaiming, “Sex is great.”Volunteer speakers for the Archdiocese of Boston’s Respect for Life Program regularly do just that in a series of talks designed to educate the next generation of Catholics on the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of conjugal love and the life it produces.

The Respect for Life Program, which falls under the Office of Religious Education, reaches over 5,500 Catholic teens each year. Currently about 25 percent of the parishes and several Catholic schools employ the program, which is the only certified speaker program endorsed by the archdiocese, according to coordinator Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski.

The program consists of three separate talks —“Respect for Life,”“Respect for Human Sexuality: Chastity”and a presentation for parents entitled “Teens and Sex: What Parents Need to Know,”which was added this year.

The Respect for Life talk presents the teenagers with the beauty of God’s creation and the Church’s teaching on abortion. It does not “shy away from the truth”but presents the information with a “non-judgmental and caring approach.”It features an ultrasound video that shows students the face of an unborn child. O’Hara-Ruscowski said she believes the video has a profound affect on the students.

“Once the kids see the beauty of life, it speaks for itself,”she said.

Volunteer speaker Stephanie Miller said she loves to talk about respecting life, especially because she has the opportunity to share her personal story. Miller’s mother was advised by a doctor —who said Miller would be handicapped —to abort her child. Miller’s mother ignored the doctor, and her daughter was born without health problems.

“That’s why it’s a passion of mine,”she said. “It really helps the kids see, ‘That person standing in front of me wouldn’t be here.’It becomes less about a microscopic baby in a stomach.”

The presentation on human sexuality explains the beauty of God’s plan for sex as well as the negative emotional, physical and spiritual consequences of premarital sex.

Maura Rogers, a speaker entering her second year with the program, has a personal story that inspired her to talk about chastity. At 16 years old, she gave her daughter up for adoption.

“It just gives me a perspective different from anyone else who has not experienced the adoption process,”she said, adding that while giving a child up for adoption is a sacrifice, it is always better than abortion.

Rogers’favorite part of the talk is a demonstration in which students are asked to chew a cookie and spit it into a cup with water in it. They are then asked to pour part of the water into their neighbor’s cup, showing how having sexual relations with even one person means putting oneself in contact with all of his or her previous partners.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face. You can tell them all the numbers, and you can tell them all the disaster scenarios, but when they see the disgusting factor, it really hits it home,”said Rogers.

Rogers added that she really loves seeing parents in the audience when she speaks.

“The parents can reinforce for us at home,”she said. “It’s essential.”

The new parent program helps the parents of these teens to both better understand the fullness of Church teaching and communicate with their children about it.

“We kept hearing from parents who, for one reason or another, when they were growing up never really heard the totality of the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality,”said director of the archdiocesan Pro-Life Office Marianne Luthin, who sometimes collaborates with the Respect for Life Program.

Those parents are trying to raise their children in a culture that is “inimical to protecting marriage”and need all the help and knowledge they can get in order to properly educate their children, she added.

Volunteers can be trained to give any or all of the presentations, depending on their interest. In addition to the training, they must sign a code of conduct, submit to a background check, and audition before they are approved to represent the archdiocese. Beginning this year, they are also required to attend a session with a theologian to ensure that they have a sound understanding of Church teaching.

The Respect for Life Program began with just eight speakers and one pro-life talk in the late 1990s. O’Hara-Rusckowski said she began speaking for the program in 1999 and the following year, a chastity section was added to the program and she took over the scheduling.

There are currently about 70 volunteer speakers in the program, twice as many as last year. Eight of those new speakers will be giving the presentation for parents in Spanish. O’Hara-Rusckowski said she hopes to translate the other two talks as well.

In addition to the human sexuality presentations, the Respect for Life Program will host Catholic chastity speaker Jason Everet for two weeks this year, one in December and the other in March. Everet spoke to 7,500 students in one week last year.

“His persona just really resonated with the kids in a way I had never seen,”said Janet Cappola, who organizes the Everet events. “You can’t have a student hear the message once and expect it to stick. They need to hear this message from many different sources as they are aging.”

O’Hara-Rusckowski is currently working with others on a new curriculum that will standardize classes on chastity throughout the Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“It’s grown exponentially, which is such a blessing,”she said.

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