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Catholic youths were urged Saturday to reach out to the impoverished children of Nicaragua.

"We need the children of Western New York to help the young faces of Nicaragua," Ann Marie Zon, a former Felician nun from Buffalo and now a lay missionary in Nicaragua, told more than 1,000 teenage Catholics during the Diocese of Buffalo's 49th annual youth convention in the Niagara Falls Convention Center.

The theme of the three-day conference, which began Friday and concludes today, is "Many Young Faces in God's House."

Zon painted a grim picture of the Central American country: fewer than one in 1,000 teens graduate from college; 65 percent of Nicaragua's population is unemployed; and 85 percent of the people live in misery, not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

Pointing to a successful T-shirt campaign, Zon said Western New York youths can play a vital role in turning around those devastating statistics. The "Give Them the Shirts Off Our Backs" campaign started in November. Parish groups donated between 20,000 and 30,000 T-shirts for Zon to distribute to needy people in Nicaragua.

"The youth, with their enthusiasm, can do wonders," she said. "They can collect clothes or raise money to send a child in Nicaragua to school."

Zon returns to her parents' Amherst home every year to gather materials to distribute to poor people in Nicaragua. She encouraged the teenagers to contribute to that effort.

Diversity within the Catholic Church, now and in the future, is the overall focus of the conference. More than 1,000 Catholic high school students and adults from more than 70 parishes in the diocese are attending the conference.

Erick Heimerl was one of the many who heeded Zon's words. The 15-year-old from St. Mary's Parish in East Arcade said he was moved by Zon's presentation and will work to get members of his parish involved with donating clothes and money to impoverished Nicaraguans.

"I'm going to go back to my parish to get people to help," Heimerl said.

Dan Canzoneri, 16, from Immaculate Conception Parish in Ransomville, said: "She was motivating. It's going to get the kids here to do something for the kids in Nicaragua who don't have much."

Zon was the second of the conference's two featured speakers. Brian Johnson, youth director for the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese in Texas, spoke Friday about diversity. Johnson is African-American.

Saturday's program also featured morning and afternoon workshops on a variety of topics, including stress and conflict in families, forgiveness, sports and Catholic values, and understanding the meaning of "neighbor."

Bishop Henry J. Mansell will honor a number of adults and teens during an Awards Brunch at 11 a.m. today. Recipients will include Monsignor David M. Gallivan, director of the Hispanic Apostolate and pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Buffalo, who will be honored as "Youth Moderator of the Year."

Seven adults will be presented "For God and Youth" awards for their work with young people. Several teens also will be given awards for service to their parishes, leadership and involvement in school and community.

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