Alumna Katie Sternhagen helps teens through youth group

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Alumna Katie Sternhagen helps teens through youth group

Holding up a peace sign, Sternhagen stands with Reverend Susan Hayes in Montreat, N.C. on a mission trip in June 2017.

Holding up a peace sign, Sternhagen stands with Reverend Susan Hayes in Montreat, N.C. on a mission trip in June 2017.

Courtesy of Katie Sternhagen

Holding up a peace sign, Sternhagen stands with Reverend Susan Hayes in Montreat, N.C. on a mission trip in June 2017.

Courtesy of Katie Sternhagen

Courtesy of Katie Sternhagen

Holding up a peace sign, Sternhagen stands with Reverend Susan Hayes in Montreat, N.C. on a mission trip in June 2017.

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Although Katie Sternhagen’s job as the director of youth ministries at St. Mark Presbyterian Church surrounds teaching teenagers about faith, you can also find her hitting the whip or saying things like “fire” or “savage.”

“I teach Sunday school, confirmation and youth group, which include mission trips and leadership conferences,” Sternhagen said.

Because Sternhagen is not a parent to the members of the youth group, she offers a safe space where the kids can confide in her.

“Above everything, I think I’m a friend or a mentor, but I’m not mom, so I’ve had kids come out to me, like ‘I’m afraid to tell my mom I’m gay,’” Sternhagen said. “So it’s real life stuff that you can’t necessarily go to your parents with. I feel like I’m a trusted adult.”

Courtesy of Katie Sternhagen
Seniors Katie Sternhagen and Kimi Pelligrino Miller smile at the camera during spirit day in 1999.

Out of everything she teaches her group, she stresses the idea that your teenage years are not everything.

“If you’re really struggling, know it gets better. If I had understood that in high school, I would have listened and enjoyed it more,” Sternhagen said.

This motto helped Sternhagen, who graduated in 1999, get through high school as well. Her father was a teacher at West when she attended, which occasionally caused problems for her among other students and teachers.

“There was a weird tension between, ‘what can I get away with that won’t get me in trouble’ and being overly scrutinized because you were your dad’s daughter,” Sternhagen said. “Some of the kids, depending on if they liked my dad or not, would be resentful of me. Some people just held me to a different standard even though I am very much my own person.”

Despite the challenges she faced at West, Sternhagen can also recall exciting times during homecoming, including football games, spirit week and cheerleading.

From a faith based perspective, it’s what we as Christians are called to do, to help thy neighbor. Not even just Christians because it’s in the Old Testament too, so that’s Judaism and Islam.”

— Katie Sternhagen

“Homecoming was always one of my favorite memories because we used to do floats at people’s homes, so you would be there the whole week,” Sternhagen said. “The themes for the floats and hall decorations were always so fun.”

Courtesy of Katie Sternhagen
Hugging each other, senior varsity cheerleaders Laura Dowell and Katie Sternhagen pose for a photo in 1999.

Sternhagen states that going to West and living in West County was like living in a bubble, which is why she loves the opportunities that allow her to take her youth group on mission trips now.

“The kids are getting out of their comfort zone, and they’re working their butts off,” Sternhagen said. “Also, the inside jokes that come from the trips—these kids keep me on my toes.”

In addition to the jokes and fun Sternhagen has when working with her group, the mission trips have also helped her and the kids to gain a different perspective on life.

“I think it helps you understand where your place in the world is. From a faith based perspective, it’s what we as Christians are called to do, to help thy neighbor. Not even just Christians because it’s in the Old Testament too, so that’s Judaism and Islam,” Sternhagen said. “It’s also transformation; you go in thinking ‘I’m going to help these people,’ but what happens is those people transform you.”

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