The role of Family Educator is a growing concept in our Catholic schools and parishes. It engages in faith formation and evangelisation with children, parents and the wider community.
When we throw a pebble into a pond ripples expand widely. From a single, simple displacement the impact is far reaching.
The successes of the Archdiocese of Sydney Family Educators in growing their faith communities builds on sometimes similar, but profound gestures. Or, as Anna Alessi, Family Educator at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Primary School at Gladesville said faith can expand and touch unknown lives: “If I can plant a seed in one family, then I’ve done my job.”
Anna also sees herself as offering support, sometimes in ways she had not anticipated. For example, a mother came to her prayer group for the first time and when Anna played background music the woman burst into tears. Her father in law had died and she had not had an opportunity, or place, to grieve. As well as providing this form of connectedness, Anna is slowly building the relationship between parents and their Faith through Mass attendance. Anna’s efforts have had another impact: “My faith is growing as a result of this,” she said.
The efforts required of the Family Educators are formidable. According to figures the majority of Catholic students at Catholic schools do not attend Mass. This term, Anna sent Holy Water to each student’s home at school assembly after being inspired by a similar gesture by Anita Sicari, Family Educator at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Primary School, Kingsgrove.
“It’s to show that Easter does not finish on Easter Sunday but continues for six weeks to Pentecost Sunday… the more they know (about the faith) the more comfortable they will be in joining us in Church,” said Anna. She is one of a few Family Educators who is not from a teaching background. Most are teachers.
The Family Educator Project has experienced phenomenal growth since its inception as a pilot program in 2009 by Catholic Education Office (CEO) Executive Director, Dr Dan White. Launched in schools in 2010 with six Family Educators it now has 70. The Archdiocese of Sydney is the only diocese to roll out the program, with the exception of the Diocese of Wilcannia Forbes, which is trialling one Family Educator. In addition, four of the Family Educators are also Regional Mentors (FERMs) who visit each Family Educator once a term.
CEO Advisor: Family Educator Project, Meredith Lemos, said the role of the Family Educator is to nurture strong and meaningful Parish/Parent/School relationships and explore and implement new models of supporting the spiritual, social and educational formation of families, in response to the emerging New Evangelization agenda.
Meredith said all initiatives that the Family Educators put forward for their ministry should link to the core purpose of their role, and that fits four domains:
(1) Developing/Enhancing the faith life of parents.
(2) Connecting/Reconnecting/Enhancing family engagement in the faith life of the school.
(3) Connecting/Reconnecting/Enhancing family engagement in the faith life of the Parish.
(4) Supporting family well-being
“The key to the effectiveness of the project is to strengthen and nurture the many relationships within the community,” she said. “When the principals, priest and the Family Educator are on the same page, the project can be very effective,” Meredith said.
Tania Chahoud, Family Educator at St Ambrose Catholic Primary School Concord West is a strong supporter of the needs of women in her community and decided to hold a women’s evening this term called “Family, Faith and Fitting it all in”. It had the support of Principal Jamie Wahab, who attended the evening. The guest speaker was the Hon Kristina Keneally and over 80 mothers and women of the school and parish attended.
“The point (of the evening) is, you don’t have to fit it all in, you just have to live faith,” said Tania. “My role is about nurturing faith and faith is something you need to acknowledge at any time… my job is about providing opportunities for parents to be with God. Ultimately, my role is to get people past the gate – I’m blessed my role is dynamic,”
Tania said she asked Ms Keneally to speak to the women because she’s not afraid to evangelise and state her Catholic faith and beliefs. Her other efforts include developing school support for a nearby homeless women’s shelter. The school raises funds and invites parents to cook chickens (“Cook a Chook”) on a regular basis for the women at Yaralla Cottages.
Paul Taouk is Family Educator at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School Erskineville, and the only male occupying the role in the Archdiocese. He ministers to several cultures and said one of the great challenges is “to figure out inclusion better”. His focus on inclusiveness has led to a school program called “The Gift of Bread” where every Monday night parents and volunteers from the school collect bread from a local bakery and deliver it to public housing at Waterloo.
“It’s a wonderful connection between our parents and the community of Waterloo,” he said. Another community building achievement has been signing up the school to the Charter of Compassion. St Mary’s is the only school in Australia to do so, at present.
“The charter was begun by a group of people from various faiths in the United States to make the world a better place,” he said. “The purpose of it is to make a commitment to live compassionately – we link our Catholic values with Catholic social teachings,” he said.
Paul said with the mixture of cultures at his school his priority is non-judgementalism adding: “that’s the best part of our (Catholic) tradition”.
“I’d also like parents to re-imagine the faith for their children and ask themselves: “what is it about Catholicism that draws me?” If you want your children to do it, then you must want at some level to be connected to it.” He said he draws on the skills of the parents to help form these connections between them and their children’s education. Some parents teach sewing, soccer and an electrician father has taught a class about solar energy.
Nikki Beach, Family Educator at St Francis Xavier’s Catholic Primary School Lurnea also has a large culturally diverse community, and offers a variety of activities to unify it. Nikki said linking diverse groups into an interconnected community is a slow growing job. “I’m trying to build a connection,” said Nikki.
To do this she held a rare event on Harmony Day this year inviting representatives of the major faiths and beliefs to present workshops to the children and their parents. A Buddhist woman, an Indigenous Australian woman, a Muslim man, a Jewish woman and a Baptist man spoke with children from Years 3 to 6 who rotated through 20 minute discussions with each. Two students from several southern region Catholic primary schools also attended, with their Family Educators.
Nikki said another of her challenges is that not all parents have the same religious commitment. “The level of faith can be something you have to be aware of… not everyone will respond to every activity,” she added.
Jane Scott is Family Educator at St Catherine of Siena Catholic Primary School Prestons with a special complication; there’s no parish church adjacent to the school making it a little harder to build the connection between the two. Nonetheless, Jane says one of the successes of her ministry is “Toddler Time”, which draws on the links between the adjacent non-denominational pre-school, Mary MacKillop Early Learning Centre.
“Toddler Time” is held in the school’s sacred space all two to three times a term for parish parents, carers and their toddlers – many of whom go on to start their schooling at St Catherine of Siena. One of her toddler mothers has become a Catholic as a result of her connections with Jane and her ministry.
“The purpose is to link different community groups and it helps parents feel they have someone to identify with. Our hope is that they form different connections and our whole community starts growing,” she said. “My role here is to make parents feel really welcome, my passion is to invite parents to reconnect with their own spirituality.”
Jane invites the parents to understand their spirituality by holding retreats and Lenten evenings “in a non-threatening, light way”. She has had remarkable success. When she started at the school a few years ago she had two to three parents attending prayer meetings. Now, around 20 attend her 15-minute Monday morning faith gatherings. She focuses each prayer group on a current issue, and then they talk and pray about it.
Elsewhere, in a small, busy primary school closer to the city you don’t expect to find an oasis for prayer, but that’s what you discover at St Francis Xavier Catholic Primary School Arncliffe’s new “Reflection Garden” at the heart of the school. “It was just an over-grown patch of bushes and weeds,” said Principal Kevin Bryson.
Silvana Vidaic, Family Educator at the school uses the now circular grassed garden with an established crepe myrtle, stepping-stones and border plants to hold prayer groups for her school parents just after school starts. Kevin Bryson said the garden, with a focal statue of St. Joseph and his young son Jesus, gives children and parents the idea that they can pray in many different settings.
Silvana describes her role as “to listen and share what she knows regarding the Catholic Faith and answering any questions parents may have about faith, sacraments, prayer, well-being – or just a time to talk.”