Parish youth ministry programs often provide a social network that helps young Catholics get through the tough teen years. Local teens and adults say that, in their parish youth groups, they feel free to talk about God and meet peers who might not otherwise be their friends.

Tahlia Hadley, the youth minister at St. Madeleine Sophie parish in Schenectady, calls her program "a safe place for kids.

"They definitely form a bond that's different from their [school] friends," she said. "We do a week-long service trip, and afterwards, they're very close."

St. Madeleine Sophie's program started in 2009; teens meet monthly to listen to speakers, talk about faith and work on fundraisers and service projects. Danase Serafini, a senior at Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, has been a member since ninth grade.

As the only private school student in the group, he felt like he didn't fit in at first, but now "the friendships that I have there are very close-knit. When I'm in youth group, I'm definitely open about my faith. I feel like I can be myself a lot more."

For Danase, conversations with classmates center around sports and pop culture: "God isn't the first topic. It's like a whole different life that I have. Now, I think about other people before myself, and who I can help."

He sees youth group friends socially to support one another. "High school has got its own pressures," he said, but "when you're at youth group, all those pressures are relieved."

Teens at St. Edward's parish in Clifton Park view their group in a similar way, according to youth minister David Carvalho.

"Youth group should be a place they can turn to," Mr. Carvalho said. "They don't get time to breathe. That's hopefully what I'm trying to create."

St. Edward's twice-monthly youth ministry sessions are split between middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, with about 35 active teens who play games, socialize and discuss topics like balancing God and life. Prayer as a way to deal with overbooked schedules often seems like a new concept to the young people.

"They need that outlet," Mr. Carvalho said. "Teens are just trying to discover their own faith. There is definitely some awkwardness, trying to take ownership of their own faith. If it's relevant to them, there isn't really an issue."

A festival for fifth- through 12th-graders at St. Edward's this fall attracted 105 young parishioners, many of whom commented that they "didn't know church could be cool.

"They don't grasp what church really has to offer," the youth minister said. "You can see the curiosity in them, and I really think it's because no one's ever told them. There's such a stigma about even being on this property."

Emmie Roberts, 13, the youngest member of the youth ministry core team at Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Latham, has seen the benefits of being involved with youth ministry.

"I've made a lot of older friends," said Emmie, an eighth-grader at nearby Shaker Junior High. "You can interact in a different way. Most of all, you're not in the same grade, so you don't see them every single day.

"We all have a certain amount of respect for each other that you wouldn't necessarily have in school," she continued. "Most kids in school feel pressured to be someone else. [Youth group members] know that God loves us and we love Him in return."

Emmie talks to her older friends in youth group "about things they've gone through before you." They've taught her "to believe that you can do anything that you put your mind to."

Our Lady of the Assumption's youth ministry program begins in junior high, when "'tweens" struggle to fit into a large school environment after attending five smaller elementary schools.

"We took on the task of helping them to socialize," said Rosemary Gavin, coordinator of youth ministry and faith formation. Once a month, before junior high faith formation sessions, a program known as "Roamin' Catholics" offers games, activities and food to about 30 young people. High school core team members run the evenings.

"We usually end up having to literally throw them out of that room," Mrs. Gavin said. For middle-schoolers, seeing older teens involved "builds their confidence and makes them feel more at ease with themselves. It can be extremely overwhelming and intimidating at school. We just try to provide the alternative. This is a no-judgment zone."

Core teams of about 20 teens meet once a month to plan activities related to evangelization, prayer and worship, and justice and service. They run pancake breakfasts, lock-ins and retreats; every year, they plant daffodils at St. Joseph's Provincial House cemetery in Latham.

For some teens, the program becomes the crux of their social life. Emmie is heading down that path: "We try to help our community and each other in any possible way that we can under the Word of God," she said. "On the core team, respecting each other is a big part of it. It's definitely a great experience if you want to grow up to be a leader."