Over the years the parishioners of St. Leo the Great Parish have forged a strong bond with Catholic Charities programs in Bonita Springs.
“We proudly host their presence on our campus in the Juan Diego Center and constantly witness and support the good works provided by their staff and volunteers, many of whom are our own parishioners,” said Anne Bellows, Assistant to the Pastor. “We partner in providing donations from our St. Leo Food Bank, as well as annual holiday food and gift drives at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. We receive the most delight in this relationship when it impacts our area children.”
The Positive Youth Development Program is one such Catholic Charities resource which helps area children and operates after-school tutoring and summer camps, explained Jose A. Perez, Positive Youth Development Program Manager.
Each of the 40 children who participated in the Program’s Summer Enrichment Camp received scholarships from parishioners of St. Leo the Great Parish. During the summer the children received tutoring in math and reading, as well as enjoying enriching activities during their seven weeks on campus including a number of day trips.
“This year we wanted to do something special for the youth we have the privilege of working with,” Perez said. “The last two years have been hard on everyone, but especially on youth who will look back and remember the Pandemic as a significant life event, and it has not been a very positive one.”
Perez figured that perhaps the Program could do something that will leave a positive memory for these challenging times in all this sadness.
“After much thought, I decided to reach out to the most magical place on earth (Disney World) since the kids have always asked about visiting since none had ever been,” Perez said. “Looking back on my first time at Disney, I remember what a fantastic experience it was, but it was also expensive.”
With this goal in mind, Perez worked tirelessly to put the pieces together to make this marvelous adventure happen within budget and without a hitch. The effort included reaching out to Disney for discounted tickets and to a local company for economical transportation.
“St. Leo Parish has always been there for our Positive Youth Development Program,” Perez said. “They help us with whatever comes up. Once the time came for us to meet about scholarships, they asked if we’re doing anything different this year, and I said ‘Yes!’ I explained what we were trying to accomplish making a lasting memory for the students, and they were on board. So, we came up with what we wanted to call the trip: ‘Making Dreams That Last Forever.’”
St. Leo the Great Parish covered the cost of nearly everything, including additional funding for t-shirts and money for souvenirs, Bellows noted. “’Making Dreams That Last Forever’ became a joyful reality made possible through the generosity of our parishioners.”
The parents were as excited as the kids were when they learned about the trip, Perez explained. One mother said: “Thank you for giving our children an opportunity we could never give them.”
Therefore, on the July 31, 2021, the group, including 40 youth, nine high school-aged volunteers, and Catholic Charities staff went on a trip of lifetime.
Upon entering the Magic Kingdom, a girl named Arianna said to Perez: “Mr. Jose, look, it’s the Castle! It’s real!”
Camper Briana described her experience this way: “This was amazing. I had always dreamed of going to Disney. I am so glad I was able to come to summer camp. Thank you!”
Other campers had similar reactions: “It was such a magical feeling when we entered the park.” “This is so cool!” “Thank you for making my dream come true!” “This was the most fun I have ever had!”
Perez said the trip was “beyond what I thought possible, the kids had a fantastic time. Getting to see their faces as we entered the park as they were greeted with the sight and sounds was priceless.”
To learn more about the Catholic Charities Positive Youth Development Program please contact Lose Perez at 239-390-2928 ext. 2302 or email Jose.Perez@catholiccharitiesdov.org. To support the Program, visit www.catholiccharitiesdov.org.
To learn about St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs, please visit www.stleocatholicchurch.org/ or call 239-992-0901.