Cardinal Gibbons athletes offer heartfelt gift

tstevens@newsobserver.comDecember 24, 2012 

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More than 20 Cardinal Gibbons athletes, including Tata Shanahan, right, a member of the track and field team, volunteer to serve as pall bearers for families who need them. Father Romen Acero, assistant principal for spiritual life, coordinates the program, called Pallbearer Socity. Photographed at the school Thursday, December 20, 2012.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

Luke Raymond cannot wrap up one of his most heartfelt gifts this Christmas. His offering is much too personal.

Raymond and about 30 of his classmates at Cardinal Gibbons High offer a different kind of gift – support for those grieving the loss of loved ones.

As members of the school’s Pallbearers Society, the group assembles several times each year to help carry the coffins of people they have never met.

They generally know almost nothing about the deceased.

Gibbons is a nonboarding parochial school, but pallbearers are available to any family in the community, regardless of religious affiliation, that requests help.

The pallbearers are there simply because they are needed and because they care.

“Doing this has changed my life,” said Raymond, a senior who, like most of the other pallbearers, is an athlete at the school. “This helps you understand life a little better. You feel connected to the grieving family, and you grieve with them. There is life and death. Life is beautiful and is precious. There is going to be grief.”

Gibbons started the program in 2010, modeling it after a similar program in Akron, Ohio.

The society was suggested by Douglas Zinn, the father of a former Gibbons student. Zinn had a nephew attending St. Ignatius High in Cleveland, and the Ohio school had a group of boys who served as pallbearers.

Father Scott McCue, then the Gibbons assistant principal for spiritual life, turned to the school’s boys lacrosse team to implement the program.

The society still is primarily made up of boys’ lacrosse players and members of the boys’ and girls’ cross country teams.

The girls are a new addition.

They are not pallbearers, but they attend the services. They are available to comfort and console, to help at the service and to participate in the service as readers, if needed, and sometimes as singers.

Junior Lauren Gustainis has helped in one funeral service and said it was one of the most fulfilling things she has ever done.

“You go in not knowing anything about the deceased,” Gustainis said. “But the service is so moving. The one where I helped, the daughter of the deceased read a letter to her mom. I never met her, but I grieved for her.”

‘Meeting a need’

Families ask for the Gibbons’ pallbearers for different reasons.

Sometimes the family and friends of the deceased don’t have anyone strong enough to be a pallbearer. Other times, the family and friends want to be together. And, sometimes, the family just wants the young people to be involved.

“Once, it was a very small service,” said senior Tate Shanahan, a cross country and track runner. “We were about the only ones there. But it is really touching.”

Shanahan said the ability to serve as a pallbearer has made an impact on him.

“Every person, every one, is precious,” he said. “Everyone deserves dignity, respect. I feel like we are really meeting a need in the community.”

Romen Acero, the Gibbons assistant principal for spiritual life, said the program helps to teach the students to live lives of service.

“They are helping people, and they are learning to give,” Acero said.

‘It gets to you every time’

Shanahan believes athletes are well suited to be pallbearers.

“Because of our athletic involvement, we know about community and relying on each other,” he said. “The community supports us, and we want to support the community.

“Grief is a part of life, and we want to be there to help. We can’t alleviate grief, but we can be there to support people during their time of grief.”

For each member, the emotion is real, as is the gift.

At the end of the service, the pallbearers remove their lapel flowers and place them on the casket before speaking to the deceased’s loved ones.

“It gets to you every time,” said Raymond, the lacrosse player. “When you tell them that you are sorry for their loss, it is real.”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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