Youth practice faith through service at diocesan work camp

Karen Adams, Special to the Catholic Virginian

Two days of heavy June rain turned many of the yards of Wise County into muddy messes, providing a challenge for the youth work crews from the Diocese of Richmond to get very far on the building projects they had come to do for residents in need.

Diana Hall, 18, and her crewmates were spending the week with the youth work camp, building a ramp to the porch of a trailer belonging to Larry Mullins. Hall was standing in two feet of muddy water, trying to dig post holes — which felt impossible.

“I kept thinking about our resident with his broken hip and how we needed to finish it for him,” said Hall, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton. “Then I thought, ‘I’m digging for God,’ and I was able to keep going.”

Benefit to individuals, community

For the past eight summers, high school students from throughout the diocese have spent a week in Virginia areas of need doing home improvement projects identified by local social service agencies. The idea was first suggested by the late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, who said that although mission trips to faraway places have their value, there were poor people nearby who also needed help.

Marty Rodriguez, from left, seminarian Marton Lonart, Trey Gholson and contractor Chuck Bender work on the base of the ramp at the home of James Lowe during the diocesan work camp, Wednesday, June 27. (Photo/Karen Adams)

Like last year, this year’s location was in the high mountains of Wise County. After 148 students from 12 parishes signed up, there was a waiting list of 25.

From Saturday, June 23, through Friday, June 29, they stayed on the University of Virginia –Wise campus, sleeping in dorms, eating in the dining hall and fortifying their faith during daily Mass, midday devotions and evening gatherings. The students, ranging from rising ninth-graders to just-graduated high school seniors, paid from $340 to $395 each to attend, with money saved from part-time jobs, donated by their families and parishes, shared from the Diocesan Annual Appeal or raised through fundraisers such as car washes and bake sales.

The 28 student crews were joined by 32 adult volunteers and 22 contractors from the parishes that worked with them at 18 home sites, working on as ramps, stairways, doorways, porches, gutters, floors and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. An additional 30 staff members managed the camp behind the scenes while students were out working.

Bert Drummond, associate director for communications, technology and special projects in the diocesan Office for Evangelization, working with UVA–Wise Catholic campus minister Brad Mathisen, visited residents months in advance to identify which projects would work best for the camp.

“Everyone is so grateful for our visits, even if they don’t know anything about Catholics,” Drummond said.

Tools and other supplies are mostly donated by the parishes; building materials are bought locally, as is food. The diocesan Office for Evangelization, which plans and coordinates the camp, estimates the camp adds about a quarter of a million dollars to the local economy each summer.

Faith, fellowship, fun

Students learn skills, share their faith and make friends with other Catholic students and with the residents themselves, most of whom have not met any Catholics. On Sunday, the crews visited their residents to meet and spend time together. This year, they brought Bojangle’s chicken dinners to each resident’s home to share.

“The work itself is a tool to encounter Christ,” said Michael School, director of the diocese’s Office for Evangelization, noting that most of the projects are simple enough that a typical contractor could finish them in a day. “But we elongate the projects to facilitate conversations with the residents, so they get to know each other.”

It’s about more than building ramps, School said.

“It’s about truly being with people who have fallen on hard times and respecting their inherent dignity as children of God,” he said.

Living with illness, disability, poverty and, sometimes, loneliness besides, Drummond noted, the residents are often examples of strong faith who inspire the students.

“We often have an idea about poverty that is abstract and sad,” he said. “But when you meet these folks face to face, they’re joyful and thankful. They say, ‘We’re just poor, but God gives us everything we need.’ The kids get to witness that.”

The week is a blend of service and spiritual experiences, with prayer, fellowship, music and celebration, shared with campus ministers and chaplains from Virginia universities, priests from around the diocese and diocesan seminarians who work on home sites as well as provide spiritual support.

“We’re here to enliven the spirits of the students,” said Father George Prado, chaplain at Old Dominion University. “When we visit them at the sites, we bring them freeze pops and other refreshments. They like that.”

Marton Lonart, who attends Saint Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, said, “Working outdoors, doing hard labor, builds fellowship with young people. It’s hands-on mission work, the charism of carpentry — another special form of ministry.”

‘Experience God in a different way’

Each weekday, students rose at 6:30 and attended mass at 7, which was followed by a quick breakfast, the packing up of lunch supplies (peanut butter, jelly, bread, fruit, snacks and drinks) in coolers, and a noisy, celebratory sendoff. At their sites, they prayed, worked until noon, made and ate their lunches at the sites — sometimes with their residents — and held devotional time during their break before getting back to work.

After returning to campus in the late afternoon, there was time to clean up and relax; then they had dinner, followed by the evening program and gatherings with their parish groups, with bedtime at 10.

At dinner one evening, Cecelia Wood and Bree Klos, both 16 and members of St. Edward the Confessor Parish, North Chesterfield, said they enjoyed the work and meeting other young Catholics.

“Everybody has a leadership role; whatever needs to be done, that’s what you do,” said Wood. “And with hands-on service you experience God in a different way.”

“And I love that you can be yourself and share your Catholic faith with others here,” Klos added.

The students also inspire each other. Izzy Talicuran, 18, from St. Gregory the Great Parish, Virginia Beach, said, “It definitely deepens your faith when you see kids the same age as you participating to make people’s lives better.”

A highlight of the week was a special dinner in the campus dining hall with the residents, who received framed photos of their crews in front of their homes and who told their stories and expressed thanks, often in tears.

“Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the most terrible poverty,” said Father James Glass, chaplain at the College of William and Mary. “What makes you holy is love. People don’t want to know how much you know but how much you care.”

Dan Harms, director of youth ministry, confirmation and communications at St. Bridget Parish, Richmond, was the program host each evening.

“Our God is real and present and living, and because of you He’s smiling and showing His face through you,” he said to the students. “You here this week have been acting as the hands and feet of Christ.”

Later, he reflected on the deep spiritual component of the week, noting how unusual that is for most teen trips.

“The theme of the week was ‘Truly Present,’” Harms said. “And kids were really making that connection between what they experience in mass and Christ being present in the outside world.”

‘By their fruits you will know them’

Bishop Barry C. Knestout, along with Father Michael Boehling, vicar general and vicar of vocations for the diocese, visited the camp. On Tuesday, the bishop joined the priests and seminarians in serving a buffet-style dinner to the students in the dining hall. He then led the evening’s eucharistic adoration, which was followed by opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

In his homily the next morning, Bishop Knestout spoke about the day’s Gospel reading: “By their fruits you will know them,” as well as about the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

“When we show kindness, gentleness and charity toward our brothers and sisters around us, we are working with God and the universal Church, and those qualities are magnified,” he said.

Speaking later to The Catholic Virginian, Bishop Knestout said service is integral to the Catholic identity.

“God calls each of us to authentic, selfless love for others. For many young people, it may open them to divine grace, walking in others’ shoes with sympathy and compassion,” he said, noting it helps people to learn to be alert and more generous in their lives.

The bishop said the service performed by young adults at work camp had other effects.

“So often it’s easier for us to help the poor from a distance; it is much harder to meet them face to face. But that’s how we appreciate their needs, and the fruits of charity are greater,” he said. “For young people, during a time when they are naturally more self-focused, it helps them mature and grow in understanding.”

‘Those kids are my heroes’

Bishop Barry C. Knestout visits with James Lowe during the work camp sponsored by the diocese’s Office of Evangelization. Lowe described the youth who were building a ramp at his house as “my heroes.” (Photo/Karen Adams)

James Lowe, injured in a mining accident years ago, has trouble with his legs. The ramp being built off his porch was intended for his wife, who uses a walker.

“But pretty soon I’ll need a ramp, too,” he said to a group of visitors that included Bishop Knestout and Father Boehling.

“Before today I’d never met a Catholic priest in my life,” Lowe said with a smile. “And today I met a priest and a bishop.”

Lowe had a brush with fame over a decade ago, when former U.S. Sen. John Edwards included him in his presidential campaign travels. He was moved by Lowe’s story: Disabled after a coal mining accident but also had spent the first 50 years of his life unable to speak well because of a cleft palate. The surgery was too expensive, so Lowe mostly didn’t speak until he was given, through a free program, a dental plate that improved his speech. His story was included in the July 19, 2007 issue of Time.

“I’ve met a lot of famous people, thanks to John Edwards, but those people right there want to know who I am,” Lowe said, nodding at the crew. “Those kids are my heroes.”

One of those kids, Trey Gholson, 16, of St. Edward the Confessor Parish, Richmond, was on his second visit.

“I like coming with my parish because I get to know them better, as well as other Catholics from Virginia,” he said. “And I do feel closer to God this week.”

Marty Rodriguez, 17, from St. Anne Parish, Bristol, and also on his second visit, said, “Doing this work builds your faith while you help people. And I’ve learned a lot about engineering.”

‘We’re just trying to say thanks’

Burley Ball was injured last September in a tractor accident that broke his pelvis and left him disabled. He can walk and stand with assistance, but only briefly.

After the accident, Ball said he found his faith again.

“He always says if he’d have died right then, he’d have gone straight to hell,” said his wife, Libby.

Her husband agreed.

“I said, ‘Lord, if you let me live I will turn my life around.’ And he did let me live. So I started going back to church and have been going ever since,” Burley Ball said.

The student crew at his home built an accessible bathroom and repaired some walls and flooring that had water damage.

Grateful for the new friendships as well as the home improvements, the Ball family held a pig roast for the crew in their yard on Wednesday, complete with Libby’s homemade baked beans, potato salad and cole slaw.

“We’re just trying to say thanks,” said Burley Ball.

Libby Ball, who had to quit her job as an in-home aide to care for her husband, added, “If not for these kids and this crew, we could not have this work done. Thank you.”

‘Amazing Grace’

All the students on the crew at Evelyn Adams’ home are recent high school graduates about to start college.

“What’s impressive is that they don’t ‘need’ to be here; they’re not part of a youth group,” said Karen Whitacre, one of the adult volunteers, from St. Mary Parish, Richmond. “They just want to be here.”

The students described the life of Adams: several strokes had left her in a wheelchair; every weekday she is picked up and taken to an adult care center for therapy and social time; and the too-short ramp into her house required pushing her chair dangerously across the uneven yard.

“When she comes home every afternoon, she sees us, and her face just lights up,” said Julia Tracy, 18, a member of St. Gregory the Great who was attending her fifth work camp.

Adams’ daughter, Debbie, lives with her but works full-time. Both women have musical ability and sing; Debbie plays the guitar and her mother used to play the piano for her Pentecostal church.

“On Sunday we all sang ‘Amazing Grace’ together,” Whitacre said. “She told us that our service to her is the same as preaching the Word of God.”

Paul “Sawmaster” Sabharwal, 18, from St. Mary, Richmond, was at camp for the third time, cutting boards with a circular saw.

“Being here is such a long way from home and everything is so different from what we know,” he said, adding that the neighbors made them feel welcome by bringing them ice cream.

St. Gregory parishioner Daniel Gonzalez, 18, returned for the fifth time. He said he makes good friends every year and enjoys helping others, but the experience is far more than that.

“Our residents show us so much love; they feel our work is a call from God,” he said. “And it goes both ways. They also are the hands and feet of Jesus, and the face of God.”