Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
The first week of summer vacation found 27 teens from St. Bede, Williamsburg, getting right back to work — performing good works throughout their community.
The parish’s youth mission week amounted to a staycation, as the group, rather than setting off to Appalachia for the Diocesan Work Camp, opted to remain in the greater Williamsburg area — building wheelchair ramps, visiting homebound parishioners, doing maintenance work at a therapeutic horse center, baking cookies for a local soup kitchen and cleaning up the road outside their church.
Deacon P. Eric Palm, known as Deacon Grimm in the parish, said he and fellow parish youth minister Ginny Gazewood were drawn to the idea of holding a mission week at home in order to raise awareness among the students of the opportunities to serve that they might find right in their own backyards.
“We wanted to open their eyes to the needs that are right in front of them, and to get across the notion that service begins at home,” Deacon Grimm said. “So often, Williamsburg has the reputation as a place where affluent people come to retire. It’s easy to overlook those in need who might be right around the corner.”
Each day of the June 17-20 camp began with Mass, followed by breakfast. Then, the teens packed their lunches in the church kitchen and set off to various worksites — including the Williamsburg House of Mercy, Dream Catcher Stables, assisted living homes and mobile home communities tucked into the trees off of Route 60.
On the first day, students were divided into six teams. Because the teens were a mix of public, private and homeschooled students, many of them did not know one another, Deacon Grimm explained, so the week began with a series of team-building exercises to help them learn to work together as a group.
“We have a special prize for who can name everyone without using nametags by the end of the week,” Deacon Grimm said, with a laugh.
In the evenings, students reconvened at the church for dinner and to hear talks on different aspects of service and Catholic Social Teaching. Guest speakers included Dr. Andrew Yuengert, professor of economics at Catholic University, and Shannon Woloszynowski, executive director of the Williamsburg House of Mercy.
“Then, at the end of the day, we send them home,” Deacon Grimm said. “And the next day, they come back and we do it all over again.”
Finding new challenges
At the Williamsburg House of Mercy — a center providing food, transportation and housing assistance for those in need — a group of girls worked with parish volunteers John Cummings and Catherine White to build a ramp allowing food carts to be rolled up the curb and into the building.
White said that she and her daughters Clare and Nicole volunteer for Vacation Bible School every summer, but that this year they decided to try the mission camp as well.
“This year, I thought, ‘Let’s try something maybe a little bit harder,’” she said.
“It’s been a great experience so far,” said Jenna Jolly, a freshman at Veritas Preparatory School. “Yesterday we baked cookies for the soup kitchen here, and today we’re working on a ramp.”
The girls worked together to hold the boards tight while each took a turn pounding the heavy nails, binding the corners. Once they had the frame together, it was time to cut the planks to complete the ramp.
Jamestown High ninth-grader Andrea Flores handed a board off to Nichole White who, with a frown on concentration under her safety glasses and pony tail, cut it with the power saw.
“That’s it,” Cummings said, inspecting the board once she had finished. “I give that an A-plus.”
Sophie Wellington, a sophomore at James Madison University and a St. Bede summer intern, said she had participated in several mission camps and liked the idea of holding one at home.
“People don’t always see the need in their own communities,” she said. “You might think that you have to travel or go abroad in order to serve, but there’s also a need right at home. Staying local helps build community in the area, too.”
Power of teamwork
On the other side of Williamsburg, two teams built a wheelchair ramp in a mobile home community with the help of volunteers from Housing Partnerships, Inc., a local nonprofit devoted to repairing homes in Williamsburg, James City County and York County.
Giselle Esquivel, a junior at Jamestown High, said she had been on two mission trips to Wise County, and has discovered the universal truth that people’s needs are the same wherever you go; only the terrain changes.
“We did a lot of the same sorts of jobs there that we are doing here. Only it was a lot muddier there,” she said with a laugh.
In the side yard, a group of students organized a pile of boards so that they could measure and cut them into planks. Boards swung, heads ducked and students stepped back as they worked to get the pile in order.
“We need a measuring tape,” Giselle’s brother Michael Esquivel, a sophomore at Jamestown High, called, and Giselle went to retrieve one from her backpack.
Meanwhile, another group of students worked with two volunteers from Housing Partnerships, Inc., to make certain the ramp frame was aligned properly.
Giselle Esquivel said that the mission week gave students who attend St. Bede, but who go to different schools, the chance to meet one another and to learn to work as a group.
“You get to know a lot of different people — people you may see at church, but you never knew their names. I think everyone has gotten more comfortable with one another, with working together,” she said.
Gift of time
Other teams spent the day at Williamsburg Landing, an assisted living home.
“We got to meet with a lot of the residents,” said Mary Rose Berquist, a homeschooled senior. “We prayed with them or read the week’s readings with them or just chatted. A lot of them had interesting stories to tell, too. We even met a Broadway actress.”
Later in the afternoon, the teens partnered with residents to create fairy gardens — gardens small enough to sit on a windowsill.
In a large meeting room, along a long table, all of the needed materials were ready: terra cotta vessels, garden soil, succulent plants and all the accoutrements — tiny houses shaped like mushrooms, forest animals and fairies.
Berquist went down the line with resident Lois Donald, helping her to fill her vessel with soil, to arrange stones and to pick out plants and decorations.
“I have a thing about yellow butterflies,” Donald said, choosing a small yellow butterfly-shaped fairy chair.
Once they returned to the table, the pair chatted and planted the succulents and rearranged the smooth stones. When they were finished, Donald offered the garden to Berquist as a gift.
“You can change anything out if there’s something you’d prefer. It won’t hurt my feelings. At my age, I’m pretty secure,” she said with a laugh.
Finding one’s niche
One of the benefits of holding a local mission week is that the teens can continue volunteering once the camp is over, Gazewood said. She explained that she planned the camp with the intention of providing students with a variety of volunteer opportunities so they could sample different types of service.
“Hopefully they strike upon something that they like and find they have a talent for, something they want to be involved with on a more regular basis,” she said.
By the end of the week, it seemed that the two youth ministers’ mission in encouraging the students to become more involved in the community was, indeed, successful.
“A lot of eyes were opened and the youth grew closer together,” Deacon Grimm said. “Many have mentioned continuing their service throughout the year at the various places we visited — especially the House of Mercy, Dream Catchers Stables and Williamsburg Landing.”
“We’ve gone to so many different places — places I wouldn’t ordinarily go,” Elle Wynkoop, a Bruton High sophomore said. “By volunteering in the community, you get to see where you live in a whole different way.”