New generation lifts jailed youths


VIPS: Norman Sauceda, center, stands outside the Youth Transition Campus with Israel Lara and Dyanis Daleo, two of the young adults that he has recruited into juvenile detention ministry. (Credit: Andy Hayt)

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SAN DIEGO — The Diocese of San Diego is making a concerted effort to put Catholic young adults behind bars.

Norman Sauceda, the lead Catholic volunteer chaplain for local juvenile detention facilities, has recruited about 15 young adults into his ministry so far.

“I really would love to recruit 100 young adults. That would be my dream and my prayer,” said Sauceda, a veteran youth minister who assumed his current role about two and a half years ago.

Through the California-based nonprofit Volunteers In Probation (VIP), Inc., Sauceda and his team serve at two locations – the Youth Transition Campus (YTC), in Kearny Mesa, and the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, located in Otay Mesa.

For one hour on Sundays, volunteers read and discuss the Gospel reading with a small group of incarcerated juveniles.

In the waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sauceda reached out to his list of more than 100 VIPs to see which were ready to return. In doing so, he made a discovery: Many were advanced in age, had already devoted decades to the ministry, and were ready to hand over the reins to a younger generation.

“I went on a mission to recruit young adults,” said Sauceda, who attended three Theology on Tap events last fall to tell the young adults in attendance about this ministry opportunity.

Dyanis Daleo, a 24-year-old member of Sacred Heart Parish in Coronado, was among them.

At the time, she was looking for a ministry that she “could be passionate about.” She said that she was “intrigued” by Sauceda’s pitch and decided to sign up.

Like other volunteers in the program, Daleo was paired with a more seasoned VIP when she made her first visit to the Youth Transition Campus last October.

Daleo, who now leads sessions there every other Sunday, admitted that she was “a little bit scared” that first time. But the experience was so positive that those feelings quickly dissipated.

“I even said to myself, ‘Wow, I really was worried about nothing,’ because these kids really are there to learn about God, and there’s really nothing to be afraid of,” she said.

Daleo added, “Honestly, the only thing that I was afraid of, at the end of the day, was doing these kids justice” and not letting them down.

Last November, she began leading sessions on her own. She said that, at the typical session, she has around five youth, but attendance has ranged from one to eight.

Israel Lara, a 31-year-old graduate student at the Franciscan School of Theology, feels called to a life in ministry.

A member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Old Town, he had already served in more “conventional,” parish-based ministries when a friend told him about VIP and suggested that he reach out to Sauceda.

Lara, whose interest in serving those on the margins had already led him to homeless ministry through Father Joe’s Villages, said that the idea of juvenile detention ministry “clicked” for him.

He said that, as a population, the incarcerated have been “sometimes disregarded, sometimes abandoned, forgotten, isolated.” But he recalled the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus said that we will be judged on whether we cared for those in need, including prisoners.

“This ministry is doing its part to follow Jesus’ command,” said Lara, who made his first visit last October, accompanied by a more experienced VIP and has been going solo since January.

He participates in the ministry about every other Sunday and serves at both the Youth Transition Campus and at East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility.

Robert Ehnow, director of the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice, said that Sauceda “has been very intentional and successful in recruiting young adults to join the juvenile detention ministry.”

“The young adults can be particularly effective in establishing a rapport as they accompany and support our youth that are currently residing in a juvenile detention facility,” Ehnow said.

Daleo and Lara agree.

Because of the smaller age gap between them, Daleo believes that the incarcerated youth “open up more” in the presence of young adults.

Lara said that the young adult volunteers provide them with an example, “an alternative to whatever path” led to their incarceration. Seeing young adults dedicated to serving others, he said, the youth can “wonder if that could be themselves … in the future.”

Sauceda acknowledged that many of the juveniles who attend the sessions do so “just to have something to do.”

“They’re not all Catholic; some probably never even stepped in any church, and that’s okay,” he said. “We still bring the Word of God to them. We share Christ’s love for them. … We’ll pray with them.”

Sauceda, who tries to send in pairs of VIPs whenever he can, said that “no two VIPs are the same.” Each has his or her own style, when it comes to sharing the Word of God.

For her part, Daleo said that she typically begins with an opening prayer and then asks if any of the youth will volunteer to read that Sunday’s Gospel. Once it has been read aloud three times, she and the youth discuss what it means to them. The session ends with a closing prayer.

Lara said that, during their discussions, it’s clear that the youth “are indeed reflecting about the Gospel and how that applies in their lives.”

He recalled how one of the Lenten Gospel readings led to a fruitful discussion about forgiveness and how it could be lived out inside the juvenile detention facility. Some of the youth shared that they had been “bumping heads” with a fellow inmate, he said, but that they were beginning to think about how to respond better to such situations in the future.

“That’s already a win,” Lara said.

For more information about the VIP program and detention ministry, contact the Office for Life, Peace and Justice at (858) 490-8375 or Norman Sauceda at (760) 518-7645.

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