Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Donna Riley, long-time volunteer and youth minister at St. Mary of the Presentation Parish, Suffolk, pours her heart into everything she does, according to people close to her.

For more than 40 years, she has been a dedicated volunteer in the parish, having established and directed a musical folk group, sang in the traditional choir for nearly 30 years, served on parish council and was on the liturgy committee. She was a catechist in children’s faith formation, directed vacation Bible school, choreographed liturgical dances and directed Christmas plays. She became coordinator of youth ministry in 1988, a position which later became salaried. Now she is stepping back from volunteer work and is retiring as the youth minister.

“Donna is a rock here,” said Ann Sweet, coordinator of religious education. “She is someone who has given her heart in everything she’s done.”

When Riley and her husband Jim, now deceased, moved to Suffolk in 1977, they knew no one, so the parish became their “lifeline,” Riley said. 

Her husband started the Knights of Columbus council, was its grand knight for six years, was a greeter and usher and pitched in where needed, she said.

Riley’s volunteer work started in 1977 when her husband, unbeknownst to her, signed her up for music ministry at a stewardship drive. She was in the hospital recuperating from having their first child, Lorna, now Lorna Harrell, at the time. Nevertheless, she accepted the responsibility to establish a folk group and was music minister for several years.

Riley became the coordinator of youth ministry after chaperoning a group of St. Mary teens at a diocesan youth convention in Richmond where she was surprised when her son Shamus received the Diocesan Youth of the Year Award. Shortly thereafter, Nancy Warren told Riley she was stepping down as youth minister because she was returning to school.  

Riley said that “on a high” from the “uplifting” event and Shamus’ award, she agreed to take over. She and Kathy McIntosh were catechists for confirmation at the time, but a few years later Riley became its coordinator. 

“The youth ministry has been a vocation, not a job.” Riley said. “I did it for the love of it.” 

After earning her certificate in youth ministry studies through the diocese, she expanded the youth group to a youth ministry that implemented the eight components of youth ministry set forth by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: catechesis, leadership development, prayer and worship, pastoral care, evangelization, community life, advocacy and service.

She received the diocesan Friend of the Youth Award in 2002 as a volunteer. 

Sue Rimasse, who works with Riley in confirmation preparation, said Riley “is all-around devoted – devoted to her family, devoted to her friends and devoted to the Church.”

Shamus praised his mother for being willing “to help anyone with anything they need.” 

“She will give her shirt right off her back to help anybody,” he said.

Joe Dobbins, who volunteered with his wife Vicki in youth ministry for eight years when their two daughters were involved, said, “Donna brings the Church to the youth.”

“Catholicism becomes a way of life rather than just ‘I go to church on Sundays,’’’ he said. “It is more than a basic practice. It’s more of a lifestyle. It’s something that becomes a permanent part of them.” 

That’s true for 10th-grader Josh Francis who said being in youth group “absolutely” fosters his faith and helps him “make sense of what is happening” in his life.

Pat Novak, former diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, said Riley “empowers them (the youth) to become what God wants them to be” and “empowers them to be good, caring, responsible adults.” 

Kate Rawls, who was in youth ministry under Riley’s helm and later assisted her, said Riley “has a knack about her that she really relates to youth” and can draw teens into being active participants.  

Riley’s son Liam said his mother “never forgot what it is like to be a kid.” 

“She always held a certain part of her youthfulness, not just by her energy but by her personality also,” he said.

An elected youth council, which Riley oversees, plans most social and service activities. A large endeavor each year is a dinner theater in which the students cook and serve a meal, make the sets and perform skits or a play. Some of their community service projects have been helping with the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen, caroling in nursing homes and helping build a house.

Long-time friend RoseMary Knight said Riley is “sensitive, loving, giving, understanding, nonjudgmental and a true Christian.”

Those traits were evident when Riley diligently wrote letters to a former youth ministry participant while he was incarcerated for three years as a young adult, and she encouraged those who knew him to do so as well.  

Riley takes things in stride, friends said. For example, her godson Nolan Knight, now an adult, said “her calming, caring presence” helped him “stop freaking out” when he broke his teeth during a laser tag field trip in Virginia Beach with the youth group when he was a teenager. 

“She makes sure everybody feels like they are important and cared for,” said former St. Mary parishioner and family friend Deacon Bob Wash, St. Pius X Parish, Norfolk.