Sophia Corscio-Sanchez finds she receives as much as she’s giving others as a member of the Spirit Squad youth group at Ascension parish in Manhattan.
“It’s teaching me to help the community and how to interact with people. I realize (now) I’d like to get into a field that helps people,” said Sophia, a sophomore at Notre Dame High School in Manhattan.
She is one of the 62 registered members of the Spirit Squad at Ascension, which established and oversees the only food pantry—Ascension Children’s Pantry—operated by a youth group in New York City, according to Robin Klueber, the leader of the Spirit Squad and director of religious education at Ascension.
Some Spirit Squad members initially came as volunteers to fulfill school or parish community service hours, but many remained involved after they finished their required hours.
The Ascension Children’s Pantry, which receives donated food and money to purchase food, opens each month on the second Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on the fourth Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.
Mrs. Klueber said clients begin lining up as early as 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and children arrive at 9 a.m. to set up tables with food, which are staffed by children when the pantry opens. Between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of food are distributed each month.
“The most rewarding thing for me is to see how much the kids get out of this,” Mrs. Klueber said. “It helps them spiritually and they learn a sense of responsibility where they feel valuable, needed, wanted and appreciated.”
Mrs. Klueber said the food pantry started about five years ago when a food donation to Ascension sat undisturbed on a shelf in the rectory, as the expiration dates passed. “Nobody was really managing it,” she said.
“I was in the process of building a youth group. We started with some kids from the school and opened it up to the parish. We got more communities involved. You have to be confirmed to be in the Spirit Squad, and we wanted to keep them involved after confirmation with the idea we would do fun trips and community service.”
In 2018, the food pantry received a grant from Catholic Charities’ Feeding Our Neighbors program. Additional help was needed, and the food pantry’s volunteers expanded to children in Ascension School, parish religious education program and surrounding schools. With the expansion, the Ascension Spirit Squad Pantry became the Ascension Children’s Pantry.
Operating the food pantry is only part of the community service the parish youth group performs. On Feb. 1, the Spirit Squad—with The Imagine Society, an interfaith organization connecting dedicated children to work together in bettering their world—operated Ascension’s homeless shelter by setting up cots, planning the menu, shopping, and preparing and serving the food. The children visited with the guests at dinner and wheeled a cart around to make them an ice cream sundae for dessert.
Michael Nunez said the Spirit Squad and the Ascension Children’s Pantry offer him the opportunity to help people as well as see friends from Ascension School and meet students from other Manhattan schools.
“I love doing it, and I will continue doing it as long as I can,” said Michael, an eighth-grader at Ascension School.
Spirit Squad participants and Mrs. Klueber often recruit new members to the Spirit Squad and volunteer for the Ascension Children’s Pantry as the young people move on to different endeavors.
“We have seventh-graders making their confirmation and we’ll start to get them in to get a feel for what’s happening with the squad,” Mrs. Klueber said. “We’ll invite them in to get to know us, not registered as members but our guests for an activity. They love it and they come back.”
Sophia Corscio-Sanchez said she is happy she became a member of the Spirit Squad and often shares her experiences with friends.
“I tell them it’s a great experience, not just for community service, but you get to meet so many people,” Sophia said. “It’s so satisfying to help people. It’s so rewarding.”