It was McDaniels’ parents who suggested joining NET Ministries, an organization that sends 18- to 28-year-old Catholics on the road to give retreats to junior high and high school students. “They encouraged me to look into it, but didn’t push me,” remembers McDaniels.

 The year has worked out nicely for McDaniels, who has followed a path not unlike other young people reaching young adulthood --- a phenomenon noted in an article featured in both the Wall Street Journal and Money Magazine, “Taking a Gap Year Before College: Good Idea?”

 “In England and Australia,” the article stated, “it is more common than in the United States for a student to take a year after high school to travel or experience the world before entering college. According to SmartMoney, it may not be such a bad idea.

“The argument is that students who take a break from institutionalized education will come back to college --- if they come back --- with a fresh outlook on what they want to do with their life, their passions, and their attitude for learning.”

‘I felt my faith grow’

As he was completing high school, McDaniels participated in a summertime NET retreat called D-Week (as in Discipleship Week).

“I will admit I went into the retreat skeptical,” he chuckles, “but by the end of it, I just felt my faith grow and explode in a new way.

After that, I started looking at how my faith had been shown to me in a way that was so real and fun, I just wanted to do the same thing for others, so I asked for an application and discerned for a little while, but ultimately chose to go through with it.”

He applied to NET, and was invited to interview with the organization for an entire weekend in spring 2010, which took him through the paces of a typical day in the life of a “Netter” including life on the road, staying with a different host family in every new town, personal prayer time, plus meetings with staff and other interviewees. He came home committed to the idea, and eventually was told, “You’re accepted!”

After high school graduation, McDaniels attended an intense, five-week training course to prepare him and others for a “school year” of directing retreats for Catholic youth across the country.

As a member of NET Team 7, one of NET's traveling teams, McDaniels helped lead retreats six days a week. From September to Christmas, Team 7 visited the Dioceses of Fargo, Duluth, La Crosse, Winona, St. Paul, Sioux Falls and Gary. “We logged about 10,000 miles on our van in three months,” he says.

What surprised him most about the NET experience? “The people you meet on the road and how much they have affected me --- teammates, retreatants and our incredible host families,” he replied.

“When I thought of serving on the road, I thought of living out of a suitcase, sleeping on hard floors and kind of being the odd man out, being a Californian, all the while inspiring young people's faith. This is partially true; we are strangers going from retreat site to retreat site. But our host families have been so kind and hospitable, you often forget you’re the visiting missionary, and feel almost like part of the family.”

There were some small differences McDaniels discovered between Midwest and West Coast living. “They call it pop instead of soda, for example,” he smiled.

The retreatants often come to the retreats feeling somewhat skeptical, he said, “similar to my first experience with NET, and they think we're a little crazy. But, by the end of the retreat, they are laughing, having the time of their lives, all while finding a deeper relationship with the Lord.

“And through all the different families, young people, and just kind strangers I’ve met, I’ve come to find deeper understanding of myself, my faith, and people in general. It’s been incredible and none of this was anticipated, which makes it all the more beautiful!”

‘Re-entry’ time

Team members then had “a few days of decompression” after the fall retreat schedule was completed,” he recounted during a short visit home. “We went through some time adjusting to reentry into our old lives, and remembering to remove the acronyms the team uses for just about every activity. With only very minimal time to phone or email every day (about 20 minutes), I learned life does go on without checking that last picture posted on Facebook, or texting my friends every day.”

His drama experience no doubt helped him speak to hundreds of St. Rita parishioners at Mass during his December break as he gave an update on his ministry activities. But there was also an inner confidence, and he declared himself anxious to return to the second semester of work, this time on the East Coast where his “tour of duty” is taking Team 7 to lead retreats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, New Jersey, Virginia, Rhode Island and Indiana.

St. Rita’s youth director, Theresa Costanzo, had experienced the NET Ministries retreat concept at a previous parish, and scheduled NET Ministries Team 3, which is working on the West Coast this spring, to give a retreat for confirmation candidates in March.

She has a willing advocate in Drew McDaniels.

“NET has definitely helped me relate to people, and learn more about my strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “I definitely am considering a career that involves working with people.”

That means, most likely, switching to a sociology or political science major, and probably minoring in theater. “NET has definitely made me realize how important it is to give back and love always, even when it’s hard,” said McDaniels. “I know that will carry on well into my future.”

For more information on NET Ministries, visit or call 450-6833.

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