By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
When Terry and Mona Ball got married in the late summer of 1973, they assumed children would soon follow. “My dream was that we would be a family with children,” Terry recalled.
Ultimately, it was “not to be,” he said. “Although we prayed and prayed for children … It appeared God had other plans for us.”
For nearly 40 years, the couple dedicated their lives to teaching special education students in the public school system. “Mona and I adopted each one of our students in some special way,” said Terry, who entered seminary after Mona’s death in 2012 and is now a priest for the Diocese of Davenport.
Marianne Agnoli, marriage and family life coordinator for the Diocese of Davenport, said individuals and couples without children can, and often do, play a vital role in the development of youths and young adults. “Many serve as spiritual mentors, second parents, mother or father figures and ‘adopted’ grandparents to so many in the parish and greater community.”
St. Joseph, to whom Pope Francis dedicated a special year in December, can serve as an example to anyone with an interest in nurturing the next generation, she said. “When the infant Jesus was placed in St. Joseph’s life, he responded with a commitment of love and shared his God-given gifts with the child. As Christians we are all called to do the same regardless of our state in life.”
Giving students tools for life
Terry and Mona were active members of St. Joseph Parish in Hills while teaching in the Iowa City Community School District. Primarily, they worked with students who had learning and behavioral issues.
Where some saw “lost causes,” the Balls saw potential. “We wanted to give the kids the tools to be kind, generous and merciful adults making wise choices. We wanted to guide each student to be loving, kind and merciful in their interactions with others, and to make wise choices throughout their lives,” Terry said.
Through the challenges of teaching, the Balls supported each other. “My wife was my energizing force. We energized each other,” he said. “St. Joseph was a success partially because of (the loving support of) his wife. We were a team; we were each other’s cheerleaders.”
The Balls cared for their students deeply, but understood the boundaries of teacher/student interactions, Terry said. “We had the highest respect for their biological parents and guardians. We never tried to play the role of substitute parents.”
Terry left the Iowa City area while in seminary and on priest assignments elsewhere, but has returned to serve as chaplain of Mercy Hospital. He runs into former students from time to time; some of them offered to help him with yard work and other tasks after his recent hip replacement surgery. A former student of Mona approached him recently at Mercy Hospital. “He had seen her as one of his very, very best teachers.” It is heartwarming for Father Terry to know his late wife’s legacy continues through her students.
Tyson Wirth, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, had “many awesome supports” during childhood, including parents, older siblings and church leaders.
As an adult, he feels a desire to give back. He has been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and plays an active role in the lives of two nephews, whose parents are also members of the parish. “Seeing the impact in my own life of the positive relationships I had with people who were older than me is probably where I developed my passion and inspiration” for working with youths. Tyson, 35, hopes to be a husband and father someday, “but at this point, I haven’t met the ‘right one.’”
He has accompanied his nephews to Boys-2-Men, an Iowa City-based program where youths learn life skills and explore their Catholic faith. “It was created as an opportunity for fathers and sons or, in my case, nephews.” He said the boys, who are 13 and 14 years old, are “a bright light in my life and I’m grateful to God that he put them in my life.”
He said people who want to nurture the next generation but do not have children of their own may not know about available opportunities. He advises them to reach out to people in their parish and the community to learn about needs. “Say, ‘I want to get involved and I want to make an impact.’”
How to Mentor
A good mentor models faith and accompanies others on their journey to making life choices. Young people desire to see people filled with zeal, passion, joy and love as they go about their life. They are not naïve to think a committed life is all “fireworks” and “happily ever after.” Share with them your excitement and deep love of Christ and the church.
If young people witness in their mentor’s brokenness the ability to continue to walk in faith, hope and love, then it is not as overwhelming for them to make commitments, to sacrifice, to risk, to give of themselves and still radiate joy and peace.
Mentoring means walking with young people in their search. Mentors listen and are attentive and help the persons they mentor to discern God’s unique call to them. Young people are not looking for a perfect mentor, but someone not afraid of being authentic, honest and generous in letting them into his/her story, his/her faith journey, while setting appropriate boundaries.