(OSV News) - "Every journey, whether it's a mile or a thousand miles, begins with a step," said Vicente Del Real, founder of Iskali - an organization dedicated to empowering and supporting young Latinos through faith formation.
At a time when many young Latinos report not feeling part of the church, Iskali (a term that comes from the Nahuatl language of Mexico and means to grow, to resurge and to begin again) seeks to reach out to them and "provide a space for them to have an encounter with God."
And, as Del Real told OSV News, it all started with one step. Even though Iskali's work today includes hundreds of young people across the country, he founded Iskali as a small group at St. Charles Borromeo in Melrose Park, Illinois, in 2010.
But the transformative experiences that led to it happened earlier. At age 10, Del Real was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This condition caused him inconsolable pain when walking, which prompted his parents to emigrate with him from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the United States in 2004, seeking access to medical treatment. When he was 18, he was able to begin specialized treatment that exceptionally improved his quality of life, allowing him, for the first time, to "walk without pain, run without pain," Del Real said.
Then, he participated in a parish retreat, which led him to become fully involved in his faith and to ask himself how he could serve. "When I was 19, I talked to my pastor (at St. Charles Borromeo) and asked him if he would give me the chance to start something new for young (Latino) people born in the United States, and he said yes," recalled Del Real. "That's when Iskali began."
From its inception in 2010 until 2014, Iskali focused its ministry on serving Latino young adults at St. Charles Borromeo. Whether organizing annual retreats, creating lay discipleship communities, or implementing a faith formation program, Del Real's goal, through Iskali, was clear: to help its members grow in faith, build community - and thus lead them to God.
Seeing that the organization's programs were attracting more and more young participants, they started to think about growing in 2014, Del Real said. He considered organizing "a retreat where they come not just young people from one parish but from multiple parishes."
He never imagined that by opening up Iskali to other parishes, the response from young people from all over Chicago would be incredible. "There were young people from all over the city trying to come, join, or come to an Iskali training or retreat," he said.
Facing this new reality, Del Real and his team gradually took further steps, restructuring the organization to welcome more participants by creating more parish communities and organizing more than one retreat a year.
With "hundreds of young people involved," Del Real learned more about their needs and dreams.
"Many of them got lost after high school and they have the dream of going back to school and they want to study, but they can't because of the economic situation but also, sometimes, because of the situation that they don't even know how to apply," he said.
"You realize that you have to help them because what God wants is for these young people to be fulfilled as people, to fulfill their potential," he added.
Because of this, Iskali incorporated a mentoring program -- in which young adults are paired with Hispanic professionals -- that could guide, support, and advise its members on issues related to professional development.
Soon, the scholarship program was incorporated into Iskali's offerings, for which Del Real turned to grant support. The scholarships aimed to motivate and encourage young Latinos to persevere in their academic journey.
In 2023, "we have given more than 40 scholarships for young people to study everything from medicine to an air conditioning (technician) certification … or engineering, or law," Del Real said.
More than a decade after its inception, Iskali continues to minister to young adults - primarily second and third-generation Latinos - in active communities in Chicago and now in Milwaukee and Indianapolis.
The amalgamation of faith formation with nurturing personal relationships and professional development has resonated with over 1,500 young adults who have seen their lives transformed through the organization.
One of them is Roxana Rueda. In August 2021, she went to her first Iskali retreat, an experience that came at just the right time. After four years of not practicing her faith, of losing herself "in the world and looking for that sense of peace and happiness in other things," within her lay the desire to return to the church - to nurture her faith.
Feeling embraced by a community - whose authentic love and support manifested itself in the growth of her faith - Rueda took on the role of spiritual guide in her community. By being a spiritual guide, “I was able to feel like I had a voice, that I could help others," Rueda told OSV News.
"I was no longer silent, but by learning new topics, I was able to take on the role of a leader to teach the young people who come after their retreat," added Rueda, who is a recipient of an Iskali scholarship and, in 2024, will begin university studies in theology.
For Alexis Campa, the organization's sports and wellness program - which aims to promote its members' physical and mental well-being - attracted him to Iskali. "I've always liked sports, so playing volleyball with new friends was a way to get more involved with Iskali," Campa told OSV News.
Campa, who studies civil engineering at Richard J. Daley College, also is an Iskali scholarship recipient and participates in its mentoring program.
"Those voids I had before, being far from God, not getting close to the church, I have been able to fill them," Campa said. He credits this organization with returning him to God and teaching him more about serving others.
Caption: Iskali founder Vicente Del Real, left, wearing a long sleeve jacket, smiles next to members of Iskali in this undated photo. Iskali is a Chicago-based Catholic organization that supports young Latinos in their faith formation. (OSV News photo/courtesy of Iskali)