|Sally Corby, associate director of the Nashville Catholic Youth Office, will retire at the end of the month after working in youth ministry for over 30 years. Above, she helps teens make Search buttons for the most recent retreat, held Dec. 12-14. She is pictured with former Search co-directors Reilly Doyle, left, Stephanie McKee, and Ryan Porterfield. Photo by Theresa Laurence
Over the last three decades, thousands of high school students have participated in the Nashville Catholic Youth Office’s SEARCH retreat program; half a dozen priests have directed the youth office; volunteers have come and gone. But one person, Sally Corby, has remained a constant presence to generations of youth in the Diocese of Nashville.
When she retires from her position as associate director of the youth office later this month, Corby will leave behind a strong diocesan youth program, one that she helped build from the ground up.
“Honestly, she’s the reason the Youth Office is in as great shape as it is,” said Father Nick Allen, chaplain for the Youth Office. Father Allen, who first met Corby when he was a teen attending SEARCH, has worked with her for seven years. He credits her with “re-igniting my desire to work with students. She’s so open to the teens and where they are. It’s an honest love she has for them.”
Corby “is great at welcoming people and reaching out to every young person and making them feel like a million bucks,” said Bill Staley, director of the Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic Youth Office.
For decades, Corby has been there to greet the high school juniors and seniors when they arrive, sometimes reluctantly, for a SEARCH retreat weekend. SEARCH is a peer-driven retreat designed to foster a sense of self-worth and dignity among participants, and gives them an opportunity to have a more loving and personal encounter with Christ. Watching the teens “become aware of a loving God” is one of the biggest rewards Corby reaps from her involvement with the program.
Corby takes care of a lot of logistical, “behind the scenes” tasks for SEARCH and Leadership Workshop, a summer retreat program for teen leaders, but her role goes far beyond that.
Many of the teens see Corby as a wise honorary grandmother, available to answer any question and offer guidance on their faith journey. “She knows everyone and everything,” said Stephanie McKee, a senior at Brentwood High School and parishioner at St. Philip Church.
Corby has deep Nashville roots and raised seven children here, so upon meeting a new person, she can often make a quick connection between family members across generations.
|Corby, second from left, and her late husband Jim, far left, at the first Search she worked as an employee of the youth office, Search 72 in 1983.
“There’s a sense of history there with her,” Father Allen said. “She knows the kids, their parents and their grandparents.” Most importantly, he said, she keeps the focus on the youth. “She makes sure they’re being served in the best possible way.”
“She’s really genuine,” said McKee, who was co-director of the most recent SEARCH 319. “It’s evident that she actually cares about kids.”
Corby was recently recognized for her decades of service in youth ministry by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. Honored for her significant contribution as an outstanding model of service and “keeper of the vision” for diocesan youth ministry, Corby received the award at the National Conference on Catholic Youth Ministry in San Antonio in early December. She was among eight individuals from across the country receiving awards in the field of Catholic youth ministry.
Corby, along with her late husband Jim, first volunteered for SEARCH 36 in 1977, and continued to volunteer for every SEARCH thereafter until she was hired to work for the Youth Office in 1983.
After working with the youth retreat program for nearly four decades, Corby said that the teens have changed very little. “The kids are the same,” she said. “To hear their struggles and their successes, that’s what’s kept me excited” about the job, she said.
Whether in 1977 or 2014, teens “are concerned about self-image, friends and family issues,” said Corby. And for all those years, through 283 Searches, she has been there for them. “I love being around teenagers,” she said. “I find them very open to sharing.”
Teenagers – very open to sharing? This might sound a little “off” to many parents of teenagers, but Corby has a way about her that disarms the teens and encourages them to open up.
Corby serves the teens “in a different capacity than our parents and it’s a lot easier to talk about my faith with her,” McKee said. “She’s very transparent.”
While Corby says the teens haven’t changed much during her 37 years in youth ministry, some external challenges have. Ubiquitous cell phones make it harder for kids to disconnect so they can fully tune in to SEARCH and other youth activities. High stakes sports and college entrance exams also put additional pressure on teens, and make it harder to fill some SEARCH weekends to capacity.
“There are so many more things going on and so many more distractions today,” Corby said. The most recent SEARCH fell on an ACT testing weekend, and retreat enrollment was down significantly. “It’s harder to fill it up than in the past,” Corby said. “We have to sell it.”
The teens who do carve out time to make a SEARCH weekend often reap significant rewards. After all these years, “it’s still a wonderful awakening for them,” Corby said.
Corby, who is gearing up to welcome her first great-grandchild to the world this spring, anticipates staying involved with SEARCH and the Youth Office to some extent while she still knows the current crop of teens. “It’s not the end, just a new chapter,” Staley said.
While Corby’s regular presence in the Youth Office will be missed, Staley said that Brandon Quigley, who was recently hired to fill Corby’s position, “has the same joyful spirit” and passion for working with young people. He feels confident that Quigley will carry on Corby’s legacy of “all-inclusiveness,” making every teen “feel welcomed and loved.”