The boys’ varsity final in the CYO Archdiocesan Basketball Championships last March had it all—nail-biting action, clutch free throws, a buzzer-beating three-pointer and a pair of true sportsmen as coaches.
St. Gregory the Great, Harrison, wound up with a one-point victory over St. Augustine’s, New City, but both teams played like champions. A video depicting the game’s exciting last seconds was screened for the 500 guests at the 75th CYO Club of Champions Tribute at the Waldorf-Astoria in late June, but even that footage told only part of the story.
“Both coaches were absolutely inspiring, each graciously congratulating the other team and his own players even though one had to accept ‘defeat from the jaws of victory’ and the other demonstrate humility while relishing a last-second victory—but very generously offering high praise for the opposing team,” said CYO director Alec McAuley in his remarks at the Waldorf dinner.
“(The coaches) also reinforced that both teams were champions already, having progressed…through regional playoffs and by handling both victory and defeat with grace throughout their seasons,” McAuley said. “What a metaphor for life that moment was—a teaching moment. We are proud that those are the kinds of lessons CYO teaches.”
The Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO as it is universally known, has taught such lessons for three-quarters of a century. Its history dates to a study initiated by Cardinal Patrick Hayes, which recommended that youth activities in the archdiocese move from a center-based operation to one that was parish-oriented.
In 1936, CYO began to operate as the archdiocese’s official leisure-time youth agency as a separately incorporated agency under the auspices of archdiocesan Catholic Charities. Then, as now, the central office staff, working in concert with a lay board, initiates, coordinates and directs the work throughout the parishes of the archdiocese.
A total of 18,782 youths were involved in CYO athletic, cultural and ministry programs in 2009-2010, according to statistics provided by CYO, with the largest numbers from Staten Island (5,367) and Westchester (5,305).
The parishes and Catholic schools there also had higher than average participation in CYO programs, at 68 percent for Staten Island and 63 percent for Westchester, compared to an archdiocesan average of about 50 percent.
Making sure all the programs and activities are functioning in good working order is the responsibility of the CYO central office staff, which includes director McAuley; two directors of operations, Monge Codio, who oversees the Hudson Valley region, and Seth Peloso, who is responsible for New York City boroughs of Staten Island, the Bronx and Manhattan; and an executive assistant, Sarah Masterson. All have extensive experience as athletes or coaches, with Codio, Peloso and Ms. Masterson having coached at the college level before coming to CYO over the past two years.
Also playing a key role are county directors who oversee the parishes of their region.
Tom Collins, the Rockland County director since 1985, still exhibits the same kind of enthusiasm for CYO that he showed back in his playing days when his eighth-grade basketball team from St. Paul’s in Congers traveled to Madison Square Garden to play for the archdiocesan championship.
“That was one of the biggest thrills a kid could have,” said Collins, who would go on to coach and serve as athletic director at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia and then was the longtime director of athletics and physical education for the Pearl River School District. In March he was named to the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame.
With all of his accomplishments, Collins has remained true to his CYO roots. During his tenure as county director, the dozen or so Rockland parishes that compete in basketball have increased from four boys and two girls divisions to six of each, advancing from third to eighth grade. There are now more than 2,000 kids involved. In fact, Collins says one of his biggest problems is finding enough gym facilities to schedule the games of the 229 hoops teams now playing in Rockland, not that he’s complaining about the numbers.
Collins also recognizes that sports or other CYO activities can serve as a “vehicle” that can connect kids and their families with their parishes in ways beyond the basketball court. He said the parishes in Rockland have each found their own way to carry out apostolic works, whether that be to encourage teams to come together for First Friday Masses, clean up parish facilities for Christmas or visit the elderly in senior citizen complexes.
“It’s the Catholic Youth Organization,” Collins said. “We’re out there to teach kids values. Teamwork and sportsmanship is a big part of it.”
The transmission of such values and qualities bode well for wherever today’s CYO participants will soon find themselves—on high school athletic fields, college classrooms or in professional occupations. Parish CYO coordinators, coaches and other adult volunteers take seriously their role in guiding the young participants, Collins said.
“We have committed volunteers who do a masterful job,” he said. “They are the lifeline of the program.”
That’s not just in Rockland County, either. A formidable corps of more than 4,500 volunteers, including 280 parish coordinators, help to keep CYO programs in the archdiocese running smoothly.
The vast majority of those volunteers are coaches, with 3,100 for basketball alone, while others keep track of the clock, scorebook, concession stand and door admissions.
Basketball is by far the largest and most well-known program, with 1,541 teams competing in 2009-2010, but it is far from the only sport or activity. Other popular athletic endeavors include baseball (102 teams), cheerleading (58), track/cross country (34) and softball (12).
Non-athletic activities include the CYO Teenage Federation, in which high school youths from many parishes develop an awareness of their role in the Church through peer ministry and by conducting an annual weekend conference emphasizing faith and fun. In recent years, it has been held at the Honors Haven resort in Ellenville.
A variety of retreat programs and courses for youths and young adults, and a Christian Leadership Training Institute for prospective youth leaders, are offered at Grace House in Manhattan.
CYO also has a scouting component, administered by the Archdiocesan Catholic Committee on Scouting, which holds an annual Scout Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and offers an annual scouting retreat.
The CYO Theater Program on Staten Island, only five years old, has already grown to 200 participants. Also on Staten Island is the Father Drumgoole-Connelly CYO Camp, which annually serves some 500 children, including 80 with special needs.
The annual CYO art and essay contests recognize winners at the county and archdiocesan level. An awards ceremony is held each May at the New York Catholic Center.
Chris Gallagher, president of the CYO board of directors, told CNY that he views the basketball program’s success as “a centerpiece” from which CYO can build up other activities and programs that develop “good citizens and good Christians.”
Toward that end, the CYO board—with the support and encouragement of Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities—embarked last fall on a strategic planning process that will help to chart the organization’s future course. Gallagher told CNY that a survey of stakeholders, including families of participating youths, volunteers and pastors, has shown that there is a high level of satisfaction with the CYO and its programs.
“You have to test yourself,” Gallagher said. “We believe we have a good product.”
The findings also identified basic needs such as an increased emphasis on the organization’s Catholic nature, an awareness of the financial strain on participants, a lack of gymnasium space, need for more volunteers in certain areas, and a desire for more social activities for youths, Gallagher said.
He said one of the priorities of the CYO board and central staff is to be responsive to the needs of parishes. Among the ideas in the planning stages are instructional clinics offered at the parish level for sports such as soccer or lacrosse, where CYO may be able to facilitate interest and expertise without starting its own league.
Gallagher believes CYO is in a great position to have a positive influence on the lives of the young people who joins its sports leagues and other programs.
“The original purpose of CYO was to reach out to children and make them more comfortable with their faith and with Christian principles,” he said. “We want to make that more a focal point of CYO.”