Between homework, sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities, free time during the school year is at a premium for most students.

That's why, this summer, St. Mary's parish in Crescent will offer an alternative to traditional faith formation classes.

In addition to religious education that follows the same schedule as local schools, St. Mary's will offer the option of two weeks of intensive faith formation classes for students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Over the two-week period, there will be eight faith formation sessions. After completing the program, students will be exempt from the traditional course during the school year. While school is in session, students will only be required to attend a day of retreat and participate in a service day to make sure that they are keeping up with the requirements.

Enrollment boost
The program was created by Deacon Andy Grebe, who was asked by Rev. Joseph Cebula, pastor at St. Mary's, to investigate the low numbers in faith formation classes.

"I started talking to people who bring their children in and I started calling people who don't," said the deacon. He learned that "it's a scheduling issue: There are just so many things that the kids just want to be involved in at the school."

After doing some research, Deacon Grebe found that a parish in Texas was offering a two-week program of faith formation in the summer. Although their program was slightly different than the one that will be offered at St. Mary's, it served as a starting point for the parish's new effort.

Deacon Grebe came up with a faith formation curriculum that was similar to the one used during the academic-year program. "The other thing we are working on," he said, "is including some prayers. We will also spend some time in the church, even if it's just doing a class."

It's important that the youths feel comfortable in that sacred space, noted the deacon.

Time for faith
Stephanie Paone, whose daughter, Maria, will be attending the sixth-grade intensive class this summer, is excited about the opportunity.

"It gives the students a more spiritual activity over the summer," she noted.

Since Maria is starting middle school, the summer program will give her more time during the school year to get involved with evening activities.

"She's very excited," Mrs. Paone said. "When they go [to faith formation] during the year, they come home from school, get their homework done, go to religion. It's hard to find time to just focus on that. Now, she will have that much more time. I think it's great for them to have that grounding and have that spiritual center."

Having the mental space to really focus on faith is important, said the enthusiastic mom.

Life lessons
"'People of the Bible' is what they are focusing on in sixth grade," she said, noting that the Bible is not just filled with stories, but accounts of real people - something she believes many children don't understand.

Deacon Grebe agreed, but asserted that "if it's an exciting enough story, kids will be interested." He also told The Evangelist that the seventh- and eighth-graders will be using the text "The Catholic Connections Handbook for Middle Schoolers" in the summer program. The book is also used in the regular faith formation program; it focuses on helping children learn how to make good decisions.

Deacon Grebe said he hopes the parish is able to give the young Catholics the tools to stand up for what they believe.

So far, reception to the summer program has been positive, he said. With a number of families already expressing interest, the deacon is confident in the program's success.

(For more information or to inquire about registering, call the faith formation office at 518-371-9521.)