By PAUL A. BARRA
IRMO — After I interviewed Steven G. Hudacko and Emily L. Toy, I accused Jerry White of setting me up. White is the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Charleston Diocese; Hudacko and Toy are two of his student leaders in the state. The youngsters just seemed too good to be true.
White insisted that the two teens are normal kids who manage to listen when God speaks to them: “They hear the calling to ministry, and I think they’re willing to do what it takes to reach out to their peers.”
What it takes is to work countless hours organizing and planning retreats and youth conferences, including the monster 2001 affair, which attracted 830 South Carolina Catholic teens. It takes a prayer life, including the rosary, and the confidence to defend their faith in public schools and communities where Catholics are the exception. It takes the constant exercise of leadership skills.
That didn’t sound like the kinds of pursuits that most teens undertake these days, so I decided to let the reader determine if they’re normal. Let’s start with Steve Hudacko. Despite some youthful fashion statements — earring, bristles on his chin and bleached hair — he is a good-looking 17-year-old, tall and muscular. He is polite and well-spoken; not once in our hour-long conversation did he say “y’know” or “like.” What he did say sets him apart from the norm.
“My parents are real spiritual. I’m actually following in their footsteps.”
Now, what normal teen would admit in public to having his parents as examples to follow? His parents are Elizabeth K. and Paul G. Hudacko, and Steve is their second child of eight. That’s right, eight. No misprint. On the weekday night my wife and I visited their Irmo home the place was in constant motion. First it was full of little blond girls in pigtails and pink pajamas, then hulking boys and willowy girls from Dutch Fork and Irmo high schools. The front door opened and closed all evening; no one knocked. Two dozen eventually showed up for a Bible study class — led by Steve.
“We’re proud of him,” said his father, “especially when he won the scholarship. We danced around and almost went through the window.”
The scholarship is a full ride to Belmont Abbey. Since there are no Catholic colleges in South Carolina or Georgia, Steve decided on the Benedictine school in North Carolina. He won a Hintimeyer Scholarship for Leadership. His work with the church and his SAT score of 1380 made the difference, according to his father.
Steve and Emily are on the diocesan Youth Advocacy Board and the Retreat Team. They are active in their church, Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia, especially with the parish youth group that is led by youth minister Elizabeth Hudacko. That group went from four active members two years ago to more than 50 today, Hudacko said. He credits youth involvement for the sea change.
“We run the meetings. The youth group put on the confirmation retreat this year, for instance, and we work with the confirmation group and do the teaching,” he said.
Young Hudacko said also that the weekly Bible study group came into being because the kids asked for it. “It’s the cool thing to do,” he said.
Emily Toy is a year younger than her friend Steve, and quieter. But she is no less committed to her mission in life. When I asked her why she spent so much of her time working with the church instead of doing the usual teen things, she had a ready answer.
“I’m just living my life for God. That’s what gives me pleasure and joy,” she said. “I never feel like I’m missing anything.”
The petite junior — who my wife thought looks like a young Diane Keaton — is also a good student and is active on the Irmo High School debate team and a few clubs. In all her activities, she looks for the good in people, she said. Not surprisingly, she finds it.
Emily wants to either teach art or become a minister in the church. She said her parents, Mary Kay and Ellis A. Toy, encourage her in her faith, and that, according to White, is a key element in the development of spiritually active kids.
“Families mean a lot,” White said. “There are plenty of kids like them out there. We just do not challenge them or equip them to minister. If we make the investment, we end up with special ones like Steve and Emily.”
Finally, he admitted they are special. How special? Emily, he said, chose to give up her prom evening to help with a youth retreat this year. Her date ended up going to the retreat himself.
Both Hudacko and Toy are graduates of the diocesan Christian Leadership Institute, where teens “are challenged to live out their faith and not sit on the sidelines.”
David Suba, an adult advisor to the Our Lady of the Hills youth group, said that the two have accepted the challenge: “They are two of the strongest leaders we’ve ever had. They have different personalities, and they complement each other.”
Youth group member Joseph Barker, 17, said that Steve brought him back to the faith and that Emily is all heart: “If I had to pick one person to put up with, say on an island, I’d pick Emily.”
Well If I had to pick two teen-agers to put up with in a family environment, I’d pick Emily and Steve. I’m still not sure they’re normal, but they certainly are wonderful.