Retreat director challenges teens to "Build the City"

Tanya Gross, `91, co-directs a unique service retreat that puts teens to work - to help serve their community and to deepen their faith.

The more we help others, the more we learn about ourselves.

Tanya Gross, '91

Tanya is part of a leadership team that organizes and leads activities for the retreat, known as Reach Out Reach In (RORI). This year, 53 youth are participating in service projects at a number of social service organizations. Youth from all parts of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee participate in RORI, now in its 27th year.

The theme of this year's retreat, "Building the City," has a double meaning, referring to the city of Milwaukee and the city of God. "We intentionally left this open-ended because we need healing and community for both," Tanya said.

Despite having to sleep on an air mattress and makeshift living conditions for a week, Tanya looks forward to this opportunity to make Catholic social teaching come alive.

"Reach Out Reach In feeds my soul," she said. "It helps teens understand the connection between the outside world and their faith and feel comfortable with that."

During the day, she divides her time monitoring the various job sites. Depending on the site, youth engage in projects from light maintenance to child care; some students even spend time working on community gardens and a family-run farm. Teens spend 32 hours over the course of the week at their worksites.

After the workday, they return to Dominican High School, eating meals prepared in the cafeteria, showering in gym facilities and sleeping in classrooms that are turned into makeshift dorm rooms.

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For 13 years Tanya has been volunteering her time throughout the year, as part of the design team planning event and as a co-director of the program.

"I saw in Tanya an ability to relate to children as well as a love of social justice," said Mary Osep, administrator of the program for the Milwaukee Archdiocese. "She has a gentle presence and the youth trust her very easily; teenagers quickly realize that she is very genuine and authentic."

Tanya graduated from Mount Mary with a degree in fashion design with a specialty in pattern making. Professionally, she is an IT program manager for Kohl's. She said that Mount Mary provided her with more than an education; this is where she learned the importance of faith in action.

"A lot of my theology was formed at Mount Mary; as a student worker I worked in Campus Ministry to plan retreats." She has remained close to theology professor, Sr. Joan Penzenstader, SSND, Vice President of Mission and Identity, Tanya's spiritual advisor.

Because she leads by example, Tanya is a model for the youth and 15 adult leaders alike, said Brian Michalski. Seeing Tanya's dedication to the program makes it easier to commit a week's worth of vacation to volunteer for this program.

"Her level of dedication is testimony to the type of person she is," he said.

Service week for teens puts social justice into practicepeople

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s summer service week for teens, Reach Out Reach In, takes place annually in July. During this live-in retreat, teens gather in community, work on service projects and engage in prayer and discussion to deepen their understanding of Catholic social justice. The various worksites offer students insight into the community groups that are working to make Milwaukee a better place. The participating organizations for 2017 include:

  • Born Family Farm
  • Catholic Charities Adult Day Services
  • Early Child Care Education Center
  • Easter Seals Recreation Center | KindCare
  • House of Peace
  • Meta House
  • Project Ujima
  • Repairers of the Breach
  • Sojourner Family Peace Center
  • St. Ann Intergenerational Care Center
  • Wellspring, Inc.
  • Urban Ecology Center
  • The Next Door Foundation
Learn about Reach Out Reach In