Parish helps youth reach for the stars

The parishioners of St. Leo the Great Parish have developed a strong bond with Catholic Charities programs in Bonita Springs.

The Parish hosts Catholic Charities in the Juan Diego Center and supports the good works provided by the staff and volunteers, many of whom are their own parishioners.

The faithful provide donations for the St. Leo Food Bank, as well as annual holiday food and gift drives at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, explained Anne Bellows, Assistant to the Pastor.

Of particular focus is support for the Positive Youth Development Program, which offers an after-school tutoring program and summer camp for underprivileged children in the area.

This summer, each of the 46 children who participated in the Program’s Summer Enrichment Camp received scholarships from parishioners of St. Leo, explained Jose Perez, Positive Youth Development Program Manager.

During the summer, the youth received tutoring in math and reading, as well as enjoying enriching activities during their seven weeks on campus including a number of day trips.

Perez works to ensure the children have a well-rounded experience. In 2021, for the first time, the campers finished the summer by taking a magical trip to Disney World in Orlando. This was something none of the campers had experienced as the price was too much for the participating families. When the call went out for support, St. Leo parishioners responded with love and kindness, covering many of the costs for each student to have a wonderful experience in Orlando at the conclusion of the camp.

“We know this is a really wonderful program and opportunity for these kids,” Bellows said. “Our parishioners are so generous in supporting it every year.”

When looking at the end of summer trip this year, they wanted to do something a bit different than returning to Disney.

“This summer turned out to be, in a sense, themed on Florida, from the native wildlife to the historical places in our state,” Perez explained. “Most of our guest speakers and field trips were related to Florida in some way. This year, however, was about what kind of mark you want to leave behind. When speaking with the youth in our program about this topic in our afterschool program, one thing that came up a lot was discovery, space, and the future. We knew then where we were headed – the Kennedy Space Center.”

With an “out-of-this-world” trip in mind, Perez worked tirelessly to put the pieces together to make the adventure happen within budget and without a hitch.

Once again, Bellows said St. Leo parishioners stepped up and generously covered many of the costs for the trip such as food, t-shirts, money for souvenirs and more. One parishioner generously covered the admission costs.

“It is a joint effort of love and outreach to underprivileged kids in Bonita Springs,” Bellows said.

Boarding a bus, the campers and their chaperones spent the early part of the day travelling to the Space Center, being immersed in the history of exploration of outer space and getting a glimpse into the future. The group even had the opportunity to talk with NASA Astronaut Steven Smith who has travelled to outer space four times.

Perez said the trip was a fantastic experience, “getting to see the kids in our program be in awe of the sheer size of the rockets and shuttles that have been launched into space. We had many moments of wonder. One was getting to ‘experience’ the first launch of Apollo 11 from the original control room.”

Two of the younger kids (Gael and Abraham) wondered if what they were seeing was real. “They were awestruck, and the look of amazement in their eyes and their smiles told me that it was the perfect choice for a trip. After that, they had so many questions about how they could be astronauts which were answered by an actual astronaut!”

Perez said the best part is that he and his team are blessed for the opportunity to be part of expanding a child’s world beyond what they know or have experienced, showing them that they are not limited or bound to their zip code.

“We would not be able to do this without the support of remarkable individuals such as St. Leo’s parishioners and staff,” Perez added. “They have supported us and have helped us make these fantastic experiences possible for the youth of the community.”

To learn more about the Catholic Charities Positive Youth Development Program please contact Jose Perez at 239-390-2928 ext. 2302 or email To support the Program, visit

To learn about St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs, please visit or call 239-992-0901.