A CLI participant does some journaling after a workshop at this year's session.
A CLI participant does some journaling after a workshop at this year's session.
In a rustic wooden chapel on the Albany Diocese's 800-acre property on Pyramid Lake in Paradox, 26 teenagers huddled in circles last week, spiritedly debating which members of their group would get to survive if they were in a plane crash.

They capped off a morning of learning about decision-making by scattering into corners of the room - some getting comfortable in pews, others sprawling on the floor - and quietly journaling about why it's difficult to reach a "win-win" consensus in groups.

Minutes later, their peers assigned small groups a competitive task to see who would get to eat lunch first: choreograph a 30-second dance routine to a pop song. When things got rowdy, someone shouted, military-style, "God is good!" and everyone called back, "All the time!"

The afternoon featured free time, prayer and liturgy, spiritual direction, theological reflections and planning for future activities.

What's CLI?
Such is a day in the life of a participant of the diocesan Christian Leadership Institute, a five-day summer program that, true to its name, aims to foster leadership potential in Catholic high-school students. The young Catholics learn about communication, group dynamics and planning skills, experience communal living and balance faith and fun.

Participants and alumni - so many young adults want to return that the coordinator finds himself creating positions for them - liberally use the phrase "life-changing" when describing the program.

"I think it strengthens the skills we already have," said Carly Lisa, a 16-year-old parishioner of Our Lady of Grace Church in Ballston Lake. She already knows she wants to return to CLI as a peer leader next year and also get involved with her parish's confirmation preparation and vacation Bible school programs.

"We are challenged to do different roles and be different types of leaders," she continued. "It gives you more confidence. It's not even just confidence in God, but confidence in yourself - that you're good enough to be a follower of God."

We're His followers
One of her fellow participants and new friends, Danielle Phillips, 17, chimed in with the reminder that Jesus' disciples couldn't cut it as rabbis.

"We're starting to realize that we are those people," said Danielle, who goes to St. Mary's parish in Ballston Spa, where she helps with the children's choir and teaches religion to fourth-graders.

Still, she didn't consider herself "much of a leader" before last week.

"It's such a trusting and open and respectful place," Danielle said of CLI. "I've come out of my shell almost completely. It's so strange because you wouldn't think four days would have such an effect."

Danielle said many of her peers come from "hard backgrounds;" she recently got out of a verbally abusive relationship herself that shook her confidence and her faith. Biblical talks and group guidance have given her a new outlook: "We help each other grow. And because of that, I've gained a lot of faith back."

Samantha Coonrad, 16, of Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy, also said the program has strengthened her faith.

Down to business
"In church school, when they teach you stuff, you just have to remember it," Samantha said. "But here, you experience it" - for instance, when the group literally stood in the lake and talked about God's presence in nature.

Carly said that planning a prayer related to the "Footprints" poem resonated with her.

"Teenagers sometimes feel like they're alone [or] that God's not there," she explained. "But they'll always have companionship with God. I think it helps when you have a peer tell you God's always there for you."

The participants are quick to list fun time among their favorite activities - who wouldn't like charades, fashion shows or "wacky Olympics"? -but the adult staff say there are lessons in everything.

CLI creates "practical experiences through having fun," said David Stagliano, associate director of youth and young adult ministry for the diocesan Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Family Life. He always hopes the experience will make youth "visible in the parishes."

Coming back
Kevin Hotaling is living proof of the program's character-shaping reputation. The 18-year-old attended CLI in 2011, was on "P-staff" last year and is working for Pyramid Life Center this summer. He'll attend Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., in the fall for religious studies and theology and hopes to become a youth minister.

Kevin was outgoing before CLI, but said his leadership skills were "reinforced with Catholic tradition. It helped me make myself better.

"You immediately find these incredible bonds," he continued. "It's so deep and so personal. You never really know your own faith until you discuss it with your own demographic. I learned that it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Echoing countless others, Kevin added, "It changes lives. It really does. I was in tears on the last day because I didn't want to leave. [I'll be involved] as long as I can."