The journey begins
On the first day of school during the fall of 2014, Aimee Melendez, DSHA ‘18, walked through the front doors of DSHA for the first time as a student feeling a mix of emotions — excited but nervous, hopeful yet scared. As one of nine students from Notre Dame Middle School in her freshman class, she knew a handful of students, but moved through her first few days — and weeks — with trepidation, living behind the proverbial walls that a teenage girl so often fashions when she feels her acceptance is at stake.
“Students meet for the first time and I wasn’t comfortable opening up to other girls,” she shares. “Everyone was nice, but so new — I wasn’t ready to be my real self.” And her “real self” was wrestling with things that most fourteen year olds are not forced to face at such a young age. A few weeks into the school year, Melendez learned her brother had been diagnosed with testicular cancer — an incredibly heavy burden to carry as a secret hidden from friends.
But on a very special Sunday in October her load began to lighten. Heading into her first of five high school retreat experiences, she walked through the same front doors of DSHA she had become accustomed to, yet stepped into a completely different space. “It was amazing. The school was transformed,” Melendez shares with a sincere brightness to her expression. “I felt like I was entering a space just for me. And for all of us to be together.”
To prepare for the Freshman Retreat each year, senior coordinators and leaders spend months planning witness talks and small group discussions. Signs are decorated and hung around the entire building; they declare artistic and inspirational quotations and scripture. Hallways are filled with enormous, brightly colored posters, and even the walls are drawn on with dry erase markers. All of the messaging aligns with the retreat theme Take Flight as students will spend the next two days in a shared experience, learning what it is to take off and begin to soar in their own faith.
What appears to be a clean-up nightmare is a well-oiled student-driven machine — by seniors for freshmen — intentionally designed to show the newest group of Dashers they truly belong at DSHA. They matter. They are valued. And when they read the words written just for them — in bible verses like “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” (Psalm 139:14) and “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD… ‘plans to give you hope and a future,’” (Jeremiah 29:11) — these freshmen begin to understand their worth in God, and thus their worth among peers. And the colorful walls around school begin to break down those proverbial walls so common to teenage girls.
“Freshman Retreat was the first time I was able to share my story,” Melendez says with evident gratitude. “Girls are so busy. We don’t realize we need time to slow down and reflect together about real life stuff.”
Free from the distractions and pressures of typical high school life, this retreat weekend was also one of the first opportunities Melendez saw to view her brother’s illness through the filter of her faith. “Girls tend to hide the hard things. But Freshman Retreat helped me see how I can better understand struggles through God and in my community.”
A celebration of faith
In addition to opening up to her peers about her “highs and lows” as she calls them, Melendez was struck by how the senior leaders owned their faith. They were unafraid to lead a prayerful reflection or ask difficult questions about God in small groups. They openly shared of their own spiritual journeys through witness talks to the large group, and spoke boldly of service projects as opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the community.
The Take Flight retreat was such a significant experience for Melendez that she decided then and there she would become a Freshman Retreat leader four years later. “The exposure I had to seniors who were confident in their faith showed me I didn’t need to be afraid to do the same.”
This October, Melendez was able to give the class of 2021 the same life-changing weekend she had. She held a leadership role in creating an experience for freshmen to feel loved and special the minute they walked through the door, serving as one of four retreat coordinators. She organized 28 additional senior leaders who turned classrooms into sanctuaries where they led small groups in reflection and prayer. She set up the student leaders to ask questions and care for girls as they dove into vulnerability. She freely shared her own story of growth and transformation in a witness talk given to the entire freshman class. “I love that I get to share my Catholic faith with the younger girls and tell them their own belief is not just ‘okay’ here; it is celebrated.”
In December, Melendez joined her fellow seniors for a retreat at the Cedar Valley Retreat Center in West Bend. Entitled Saying Yes, this retreat invites students to say yes to God as they reflect upon their high school journey and move closer to the opportunities life will present beyond the familiar walls of DSHA. The structure is similar to that of the Take Flight retreat, but at this point the conversations hold a different tone. “Everyone is more mature; conversations are calm and humble. The girls share, but they also want to listen.”
After a witness talk on the second afternoon, seniors spread out among a large open room and sit in silence on the floor — pens and small pieces of paper in hand. Quiet music fills the air and words of encouragement are written from one student to another. The name of each girl is noted on a colorful envelope that is taped to the back wall of the room. And over the course of 30 minutes, each envelope is filled with affirmations from peers — personal messages of love and worth, encouragement and hope. It is in the beauty of this affection that students are able to share their “real self” as Melendez puts it. They are able to share because they are told they matter — by their classmates and by God — through collective worship, scripture and liturgy.
Anchored in faith
Melendez and her senior classmates have one high school retreat left. This April, an optional retreat will take place at the Vincent Pallotti Retreat Center in Elkhorn. This final retreat is appropriately titled Anchoredin Your Faith. It will provide fifty girls one last shared overnight experience to connect with one another in a sacred space. A space carved out of the pressures they face as they head toward graduation and college. A space that will allow them to shrug off the tension of social media and college decisions, and be in prayer and worship together — in the authentic community of the DSHA sisterhood.
“When I go off to college I want my faith to be strong. I know it might be hard outside of this environment because we have so many opportunities to grow with God and each other,” Melendez shares with a tone of nostalgia and thanksgiving. "But my Catholic roots are so important to me. I want to carry God in my heart and I pray for this all the time. I know I will go to college and continue to rely on God for strength — in the highs and the lows.”
This last retreat for Melendez will be different than her first, but no less significant. Her brother is healthy and her friendships are deep. The walls will not likely be covered by brightly colored dry erase marker, but her experience will be covered with the truth that comes from a life transformed by — and rooted in — a loving, faith-based community.