By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 6, 2016
JONESBORO—Most people stand and stare when paying a first visit to the office of youth minister Susan Baker at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro.
From her collection of hundreds of Pez candy dispensers to original artwork and youth group photographs, there’s a lot for the eyes to take in.
Baker’s cozy office in the parish’s St. John Paul II Center is decorated with encouraging notes from teens, religious art, a portrait of Baker painted by a student, and a dartboard.
Her collections of decorative duct tape rolls, mini stuffed animals, and turtles are all conversation pieces, but the main draw is the Pez display.
While working toward a master’s degree in education at Georgia State University, Baker learned that office spaces should contain items that help others know you’re a real person.
“I want the kids to feel comfortable. I tell them it’s their office,” said Baker.
She has served at St. Philip Benizi for four years. The youth group members have fun looking at online auctions to find bargains on unique dispensers.
“It’s a competition for the kids to find one I don’t have,” said Baker.
When a teen presents her with a dispenser, she uses a Sharpie to write their name and date on the back of the canister portion of the dispenser.
The collection now totals more than 450. Displayed on the top shelf of a credenza, the collection includes super heroes, Star Wars characters, Disney princesses, Ninja Turtles, and holiday-themed dispensers.
Two sets of Pez Presidents of the United States remain in the original packages.
“I’m a big history nut,” explained Baker. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of West Georgia.
Baker’s enjoyment of Pez dispensers dates to childhood when her parents gave them to her and her brother as gifts.
“It was just a fun, little thing for our Easter baskets,” she said.
Gloria Jones, a youth group member, counted and arranged all of the dispensers by category. She created a tally on an index card posted below the exhibit.
“She came in one Saturday and organized it all,” said Baker.
More like a family
Baker keeps snacks for hungry teens and extra Pez candies on hand.
A bookshelf is lined with AP study guides and information on college scholarships. She tutors students who need help.
Baker began providing academic resources after one student came to her and said the only choices for post-high school were to join the military or a gang.
“I want them to know there are ways,” she said about college or professional development.
Baker lives in Peachtree City, where she spent her teen years. She knows there is a world of difference between her Fayette County community and the Clayton County community in opportunities for young people.
“It’s tough for a lot of them. They need a place they can go and be themselves,” Baker explained.
A tub tucked in the corner of her office contains board games and card games to fill down time.
While Baker’s office is the hub of the St. Philip Benizi youth ministry, she also spends a lot of time out in the community.
“It’s more of a family than a youth group,” she said. “I go to so many concerts and games.”
The youth program has a large retention rate, and teens often invite their non-Catholic friends to activities. About 100 teens are involved in the program. After confirmation, many of the teens return to help plan the retreat for the next year.
“Together, we build this program up. It makes sure we’re meeting their needs,” said Baker.
The Franciscan priests of the parish and the volunteers are strong supporters of the youth ministry. “My core team is incredible. We’re blessed that the friars are very active,” she emphasized.
Baker’s parents, Doug and Judy, fill in as drivers when needed and often bring spicy Takis snacks and sodas.
“My parents are so incredibly supportive,” she said.
The Bakers brag about the youth group members, considering them to be their own grandchildren.
“When you get one of the Bakers, you get all of us,” she said.
“They keep track of each other”
Youth group members have been raising funds for more than a year to go to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis in 2017. They attended in 2015.
“They get to see what’s special about our group,” said Baker about participation in NCYC.
The teens have a group chat online and often send prayer requests or information on finding music with cleaner lyrics. They follow up by asking friends how certain situations turned out.
“They keep track of each other,” she said.
By feeling safe, they learn to carry each other’s burdens.
“It’s huge for me. I believe in relational ministry,” said Baker.
The youth serve the parish as ministers of hospitality, on social justice committees, as lectors, and teachers of English as a second language. They are altar servers and coffee shop attendants.
Baker does not allow them to separate by ethnic group when participating in small group activities.
“For the kids, it’s not an option,” she said.
This coming together helps them to learn and appreciate different cultures.
“This is who we are,” she said.
Baker’s office décor reflects her personality and helps young people and parents feel at home.
Her goal is to help teens know there is someone who loves them “the way God loves them.”
Because the office is windowless, Baker arranged four seasonal scenes made with broken glass and paint on her wall. Even a portion of the ceiling features tiles created by the youth group.
“They love to come in and just hang out,” said Baker.
Whether they are volunteering or studying, the teens feel comfortable enough to share what is occurring in their lives.
“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s allowed me to be creative,” said Baker of her interior decorating efforts.