Let the kid play

Let the kid play

By Heather Nelson

(Published on November 23, 2015)

The University of Kansas men’s basketball team anxiously waits for one of its teammates to finally be able to join the team on the court.

Freshman top-recruit from Mali, Cheick Diallo, remains on the bench — in limbo — due to NCAA ineligibility. The NCAA has held Diallo in this state for the past six months. Kansas coach Bill Self and the university’s athletics department can no longer tolerate it.

I can also no longer tolerate it.

Self spoke out Saturday in a conference call with ESPN and CBS Sports against the NCAA’s treatment of the Diallo case. He said that information on the case had been withheld from KU prior to this month. Self also said it seems the NCAA isn’t making much of an effort to further the case.

Diallo spent almost three years at Our Savior New American High School, a private school  in Centereach, N.Y. (He left Mali in 2012 hoping to pursue basketball.) The problem is that the NCAA placed Our Savior New American High School under review in 2012, which could potentially nullify Diallo’s main coursework.

This is frustrating because a young kid from Mali left his home and family to follow the American dream. Diallo was not aware that Our Savior was under NCAA investigation.

I looked over the NCAA freshman eligibility guidelines because Diallo is not the only recruit dealing with this problem. The University of Central Florida’s freshman recruit, originally from Senegal, Tacko Fall, faced ineligibility this season, too. But the NCAA requirements are no different from what a college requires students to complete before being admitted to a school. In Diallo’s case, the University of Kansas obviously admitted him. Diallo told ESPN, recently, that he received an A and a B in the two summer courses he took at Kansas; he’s in 15 credit hours this fall. Honestly, he’s already doing better in his first semester in college than I did.

Tell me why I shouldn’t be mad that Diallo is still on the bench.

If Self speaking out wasn’t enough, the University of Kansas penned a six page letter to the NCAA, which addresses its concerns in the Diallo case.  The letter, dated Nov. 10, is signed by Kansas Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger. The letter reprimands the NCAA investigation of the Cheick Diallo case — most of it relates back to the fact that the institution hasn’t promptly completed tasks or worked with the university to come to a conclusion.

In the second paragraph of the letter, Zenger writes that the university has spent nearly “six figures” on the investigation, but the university would “wholeheartedly support such exorbitant expenditures because we have uncovered serious and legitimate misrepresentations attributed to the NCAA process.” Later in the letter, Zenger refers to the numerous times Kansas representatives visited Our Savior New American High School. NCAA officials have not.

While the letter pins all of the blame on the NCAA, I’ve got to be skeptical of how much the university exaggerated to make their point. Regardless, a decision needs to be made. Zenger is correct about the lack of partnership between the institutions. Instead of fighting each other on the issue, the institutions need to work together to fix it. Diallo’s eligibility needs to be decided immediately. The NCAA has no reason to keep the investigation going.

Even without Diallo, I’m confident in the basketball team that Self is able to put on the floor, however, that’s not the point. Let the kid play. Give Diallo the opportunity to pursue the American dream. If he wants to be a one-and-done, let him.

NCAA, stop giving people a reason to hate you, and let the kid play.

*Editor’s note: Cheick Diallo was cleared for play in late November. His debut was the December 1 game at home against Loyola Maryland.

Published in The Leaven (May 15), click to enlarge

By Heather Nelson

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Meah Copeland slowly and carefully guided the crochet hook as she finished the last chain. She examined her creation — a small hat. Meah smiled; the six-hour process was worth it.

She had never done this before.

In her 14 years of life, Meah, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School in Shawnee, has learned to overcome any obstacle.

Mark and Melinda Copeland adopted Meah from China when she was nearly 8 years old. Meah did not speak English and lacked formal schooling. She also has a craniofacial disorder that impacts her hearing and has required several surgeries.

“She’s done amazingly well,” Melinda said. “She’s transformed so much, and it has a lot to do with a Catholic environment.”

After learning to crochet, Meah decided to use her new skill to aid cancer patients for her Girl Scout Silver Award.

“My dad had cancer and passed away three years ago,” Meah said.  “I dedicated this [project] to him.”

The project, “Make Your MARK on Cancer,” benefits adult cancer patients undergoing chemo treatments. Meah built a website to teach others how to crochet a chemotherapy hat, make a CARE package, and contact a hospital to donate to. Meah will donate 50 hats, all her own work, to the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

Meah, a presenter at the state council’s competition, drew more than a little attention for her work.

“When a few people came to my table, they were amazed at what I’d done,” Meah said. “I crocheted 50 hats and made a website — they were just shocked.”

Sue Carter, principal of St. Joseph, said that Meah’s outreach is characteristic of her desire to serve — and her ability to overcome all obstacles to do so.

“Meah is a friend to everybody,” Carter said. “She’s one of the hardest workers — she never gives up.”

If there’s ever a need, said Carter, Meah recognizes it — and her compassion for others is contagious.

Meah said that she just hopes her project inspires others to assist and serve as she has.

Published in The Leaven (May 8), click to enlarge

By Heather Nelson

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Mental illness is more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

Because of the stigma attached to it, mental illness is openly discussed far less than the other three diseases, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Which means people sometimes lack the information or support they need to seek out a diagnosis or undertake treatment for mental illness.

But the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition (GKCMHC) is working to change all that. And it turned first to faith communities for help.

Faith communities can play a significant role in reaching out to individuals and families struggling with mental illness — especially because that’s where many people first turn when facing times of crisis. And so, on April 23, Catholic clergy, women religious, lay leaders, and others joined religious leaders of other faiths to learn more about how they can help.

The group met at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood for “The Gathering for Mental Health: A Faith-Filled Response to Mental Illness.” Its purpose was to inform these leaders of resources to help their congregations and to share with them ways to offer effective support to others.

Several speakers from a range of faith backgrounds — Methodist, Catholic, Jewish —spoke on topics ranging from the importance of wellness to reducing the stigma to taking action. Michael Scherschligt, executive director of The School of Faith in the archdiocese, and Jacque Pfeifer-Moffitt, doctor of psychology and parishioner at St. Paul Parish in Olathe, discussed the importance of a relationship with God in their respective presentations on wellness and happiness.

The Rev. Steven Blair, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, has worked with mental health ministry for four years; he focused his presentation on the science of depression. He used the analogy of the thumb swollen to twice the size of the other, and argued that no one would try to explain away the visible swelling.

“A person with depression has an inflamed brain and they can’t say, ‘It hurts here,’” Blair said. “If you get the science right, you can get the care right.”

In his radio show preceding the meeting of religious leaders, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann suggested the rise in awareness of mental health issues on the church level was sparked by the suicide of a well-known pastor’s son in California a couple of years ago.

Often, said the archbishop, parish staffs don’t feel well equipped to assist in the area of mental health.

“The hope is to make them aware some of the resources available, and who to refer to and how to network better,” Archbishop Naumann said.

Presenter Joy Koesten agreed.

After recounting the origins of both the Jewish Community Mental Health Coalition and the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition, she stressed the importance of reaching out.

“Mental illness is real. It’s common. More importantly, it’s treatable and there is hope on the other side,” Koesten said. “It’s OK to talk about it — let’s have that conversation.”

Pfeifer-Moffitt and her husband Mike Moffitt, who is also a psychologist and is in formation for the permanent diaconate, hope to see the conversation continue within the archdiocese.

They hope there might ultimately be some type of archdiocesan program focusing on wellness and balance addressing physical and mental needs.

The morning included several opportunities for prayer, and Father John Riley, archdiocesan chancellor, offered the closing prayer.

“I think what happened today is the clergy that were able to participate were left with a desire to reach out to include the persons who may be on the fringes of their congregations and families and friends, who are affected by mental health concerns,” Pfeifer-Moffitt said.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan. maintains a list of Catholic counselors on its website under the Office of Marriage and Family Life. Visit: www.archkck.org/catholic-counselors.

Published in The Leaven (April 17), click to enlarge By Heather Nelson Screenshot 2015-04-23 09.38.37

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Chip. Chip-chip. Chip.

Bob Cunningham is chipping away at a thick tree branch to create a notch. Once finished, he places another branch perpendicular to the first, to form a cross.

Cunningham smiles.

And his smile says it all.

As Cunningham peers through his round glasses at the creation he holds in his rough hands, it doesn’t look like much. But it means a lot to him.

Cunningham, an almost 90-year-old resident at Claridge Court in Prairie Village, creates crucifixes out of fallen tree branches.

His first creation hangs in the entryway of his home.

“It’s not me, it’s the Holy Spirit telling me what to do,” Cunningham said with a smile inching across his face.

Ten at a time, Cunningham pieces each cross together, places it on a base, and glues the crucified Christ onto the cross. Two of his most important tools are invisible to the casual observer: time and patience.

Before the Holy Spirit directed him to take up this new project, Cunningham repaired rosaries for parishes around the area. He racks up near one thousand miles each month driving around to pick up and drop off repaired rosaries, he said.

“When I started making [and repairing] rosaries, I felt there was something missing,” Cunningham said.

But on a walk one day, Cunningham spotted a Corpus lying in the grass. He credits the Holy Spirit with the inspiration to take it with him, craft a cross for the misplaced Jesus and launch his crucifix ministry. He’s shared his gift with those in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Christ Renews His Parish retreats. Cunningham also carries crucifixes in his car.

“Just in case I see someone who I think might enjoy one,” Cunningham said.

His joy is contagious.

Rob Salierno, executive director at Claridge Court, has known Cunningham for 10 years.

“Mr. Cunningham is always helping people,” Salierno said. “He has a lot of passion — people follow his lead.”

Cunningham begins his day with scripture and daily mass at Cure of Ars, where he is a member of the parish. Cunningham is in tune with the Holy Spirit, who he trusts to work through him.

“Everyone tries to explain what love is, but if you really believe in God, he loves everybody,” Cunningham said. “Why should I resist that?”

Through service and his smile, Cunningham does just that — he loves.

Salierno said that Cunningham is dedicated to bringing forth religion through the Catholic faith.

“His mission never stops — even over 80,” Salierno said. “He’s leading the way in a Christ-like manner.”

Cunningham crucifixes are carefully packaged in small gift bags that include a number of pamphlets. These pamphlets include information about the Holy Spirit, prayer cards and a rosary booklet. Cunningham puts these together as well.

He reveres the rosary. In his pamphlet he includes four new meditations, which he said are important things for the laity to pray for.

“We really need those ‘Hail Marys,’” Cunningham said. “These are really powerful prayers.”

Salierno said that Cunningham is always looking for ways that he can serve others. His family often joins him for dinners at Claridge Court.

“Their laughter — it’s apparent the love they all share,” observed Salierno.

Catherine Solie, the wellness director at Claridge Court, said she interacts with Cunningham often. She describes him as very giving, but it’s his personality that attracts many.

“He really lives life to the fullest,” Solie said. “It’s his sense of humor — people really enjoy him.”

But Cunningham isn’t searching for recognition or praise. He just patiently waits for the Holy Spirit to guide him.

“I don’t know what my next project will be, but whatever it is the Holy Spirit will tell me what to do,” Cunningham said.

Students host, serve on annual Koinonia retreat

(From March 6, not published in The Leaven)

By Heather Nelson

Snow lightly falls on the unpopulated campus at the University of Kansas. Most students snuggle in bed on this last day of rest before December finals. But nearly 50 students at the St. Lawrence Campus Center in Lawrence, Kan., gathered to hear their fate.

What is God asking of them on this early Friday morning? How would God call them to serve the community?

Students kneel before Jesus in the chapel. One by one, the lay director calls students forward.

“Chuck, you will serve as a resource and bring one person on this retreat.”

“Yes, Lord. I long to do your will.”

Months before the retreat, students commit to serve as a part of a team on a retreat called, “Koinonia.” Students lead the retreat twice a year, fall and spring, at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, Kan.

Chuck Hollwedel, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said he served on retreat because he needed to share God with others.

“Koinonia really changed my life, and opened me up to God and His love,” Hollwedel said. “I wanted to help do that for others.”

Hollwedel served as a “resource” on the retreat. As a resource, Hollwedel gave a talk and led a small group of retreantants.

“As resources, we are looked at as leaders of the retreat,” Hollwedel said. “However, with my experience as a resource, [the retreatants] truly led the group by the profound things they would say in our discussions.”

Six groups comprise the 50-person Koinonia team. Each week the team meets to prepare for the retreat. Meetings start with breakfast followed by a meditation. Then, the teams split off to work on different tasks. Resources practice their talks; “wheaties” prepare the menu and décor; music team compiles all music for the weekend.

The lay director, Gage Shirley, and coordinator, Sarah Regan planned and organized the meetings. Regan, a sophomore at the university, assisted Shirley with the logistics of planning a retreat.

“Basically, I was the one with the watch [on the retreat],” Regan said. “Anything that Gage needed, I did.”

Ten years ago, the university hosted the first St. Lawrence Koinonia, also known as SLK. The retreat was adapted from the same retreat at the University of Illinois. Since then, the retreat has grown, and most students involved with the St. Lawrence attend the retreat before graduating.

“The retreat exists to introduce people to Christ and to allow the opportunity for people to experience Christ in a more personal way,” Regan said.

Along with many others, Regan stressed the importance of a student-led retreat, which provides students with an instant sense of community.

Sophomore Libby Grube, who served as a resource, said the with student leadership, the retreat earns a different sense of credibility.

“[It’s] not the type that comes with age or degree or experience, but the credibility that only a few years, months or even weeks ago, I was in the exact same place as some of those retreatants,” Grube said.

Another resource, junior Sam Cunningham, said that the experience is more personal when a peer is guiding you.

“Student leaders are much more approachable to other students than a teacher, faculty member, or other adult may be,” Cunningham said.

The retreat revolves around the paschal mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Koinonia lasts one weekend: Friday is “Die Day,” Saturday is “Rest Day,” and Sunday is “Rise and Go Day.” The talks for each day fall under each theme.

Retreatants take part in the sacraments, enjoy holy leisure, and grow in faith through prayer and fellowship.

Senior Beth McMillen didn’t know what to expect when signing up for the retreat. Like most others, McMillen’s friends encouraged her to go on the retreat. Others heard an announcement at mass that enticed them.

“I loved how quickly I connected with everyone that I met; I felt like I knew them for years,” McMillen said.

Like many others, McMillen applied what she learned from her peers to make changes in her life.

“One thing that stood out to me is that we must renew our love for Christ each day,” McMillen said. “I need to remind myself each day to pick up my cross, just as Jesus did for us.”

Though the retreat lasts a few days, the purpose is to extend that community well past the weekend. For this reason, a “Fo(u)rth Day” is organized to allow students to share how they’ve continued to live out Christ’s mission after the retreat. This year, Shirley and Regan challenged students to make a concrete resolution that stemmed from their experience on Koinonia.

“All weekend we speak of how to grow in personal relationship with Christ,” Regan said. “But fourth day shows that we are not meant to keep the joy of the Gospel to ourselves.”

Administrators celebrate New Evangelization during Catholic Schools Week

(From Feb 6, not published in The Leaven)

By Heather Nelson

Schools across the country celebrated the Church’s foundation in the New Evangelization: Catholic Schools.

The observance ran Sunday, Jan. 25 – Friday Jan. 31. Schools celebrated with masses, open houses, and activities for students, families and parishioners.

The focus for Catholic schools this year is to serve the underrepresented population within Catholic schooling.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a report in November 2014 about the relationship between Catholic schools and underserved populations, mainly Latino Catholics. Archbishop George Lucas (Omaha, Neb.) and Bishop Daniel Flores (Brownsville, Texas) presented the report to the Fall General Assembly.

Archbishop Lucas said that Catholic schools are vital to the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel message

“The New Evangelization calls us to open up an inviting space where God’s grace can take hold and bear fruit, to welcome the Spirit in ways that support conversion, touch the heart, and inspire,” Archbishop Lucas said at a presentation to the Fall General Assembly.

Using the New Evangelization, Catholic schools across the country can begin to reach the underserved populations.

Bishop Flores emphasized the importance of reaching out to the diverse populations, which is supported by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

“Welcoming more children from diverse populations in our Catholic Schools, and particularly making an effort to reach out to underserved communities, is important for the future of Catholic schools and of our Church,” Bishop Flores said at a presentation to the Fall General Assembly.

Each year, Catholic Schools Week celebrates Catholic education. According to the report by the USCCB, Catholic schools are outperforming public schools in test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance.

Heather Huscher, principal at Saint Matthews Catholic School in Topeka, said that even with a rising Latino population, she hasn’t noticed significant change in the school. Huscher said that she noticed one or two Latino families bring others in.

Huscher said that Catholic Schools Week is centered on the core values: excellence, family and God’s love. The school ran programs that promoted these values during the week.

“We can catechize the family by getting them to buy into the idea that you’re not here for yourself,” Huscher said. “Kids, then, make the faith more their own.”

Kathy O’Hara, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., introduced outreach to the underserved before hearing about the USCCB report. Based on information from Fr. Joe Corpora, O’Hara learned that there are many different ways to engage the Latino community.

“Some families may have a different understanding of [Catholic] schooling. In Mexico, Catholic schools are for the elite,” O’Hara said.

Schools should consider individual contact with Latino families rather than mere mailings, O’Hara said. She added that hiring bilingual staff would be beneficial in creating relationships with Latino families.

O’Hara remained positive about the ongoing development of the New Evangelization in the schools.

“Catholic Schools Week provides the opportunity for us to celebrate the success that we’ve had and to reaffirm the mission: that Jesus Christ be known and love by our students,” O’Hara said.