Youth groups take part in camps that lend helping hands in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Newcomb
By Emily Booker
Summer may seem like a time when kids are sleeping in and relaxing, but lots of young Catholics used their summer vacations to serve the needy.
Hundreds of teenagers from all over the country traveled to the Diocese of Knoxville this summer to offer their energy, time, and love to others.
By taking part in Catholic service camps such as Catholic Heart Workcamp and Alive in You, teenagers learned more about poverty and the needs of people in the United States.
They also learned to serve others as Christ commanded and to see Christ in those they serve while strengthening their faith through music, presentations, and the sacraments. The camps emphasize the interconnectedness of charity and faith.
Catholic Heart Workcamp is a national program focused on the corporal works of mercy. Almost 300 teens from as far away as Iowa, Nebraska, and New York came to the diocese for a Catholic Heart Workcamp hosted at Knoxville Catholic High School. The volunteers were divided into 37 groups that served at local charities and nonprofits. Many volunteered at programs run by Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
Beverly Osterbur, an adult leader from St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceville, Ga., said that one of the goals of Catholic Heart was to get the teens out of their comfort zones, meeting people and learning how to accomplish tasks together.
Ms. Osterbur was part of the group that volunteered at Samaritan Place in Knoxville, which offers emergency and transitional housing for at-risk seniors. The Catholic Heart volunteers cleaned out plant beds, trimmed bushes, and planted a vegetable garden for the residents. The residents appreciated the help from the eager, young volunteers, and the teenagers got something out of the experience, too.
“They see within our own country there is poverty, there is homelessness, there are starving people, there are food kitchens,” Ms. Osterbur explained. “They see that it’s here right in their backyards basically. … They learn to pray together. They learn to work together.”
Christine Wozny, who is with Good Shepherd Parish in Huntsville, Ala., volunteered for Catholic Heart after her daughter served last year. Her daughter had such a great experience that she convinced her mother to attend as an adult leader.
“It’s been great for the adults, too,” Ms. Wozny said. “It’s not just for the kids. It’s spiritual. It’s fun. They put a lot of fun into it. It’s a lot of hard work, too, on work days, but you get to do wonderful things that make you feel great, and I got lucky—I get to work with kids all day.”
Ms. Wozny’s group served at the Crazy Quilt Friendship Center, which offers emergency assistance, a food pantry, and children’s programs to the rural community of Newcomb near the Kentucky border just outside of Jellico.
Every day, the Catholic Heart team would make the 80-minute drive from Knoxville to the Crazy Quilt Friendship Center and host a day camp for local children.
Ben Llena, from St. Lawrence Parish has served with Catholic Heart for three years, but this was his first year as an adult leader. As an early childhood education major, he was happy to spend the week helping children.
“I love being around the kids, being around everybody, seeing the work we can do to change this community and other communities around,” he said. “It just makes me feel good inside to know I am changing someone’s life.”
Michele McPheely, also from St. Lawrence Parish, is a first-grade teacher, so she was excited to learn that she would be working with kids at Catholic Heart.
“Being a teacher, I felt called by God my whole life to work with kids, and for me, the most important thing to me is I feel like I am helping people every day,” she said. “When you see kids that don’t have a lot, it’s really meaningful when you get to spend time with them and get to be part of their life even if it’s for a small moment.”
She said that over the week, the kids warmed up to the teens. By the end of the week, everyone was sad to see the camp end.
“The transformation from the first day to the last day is huge. We get out of our cars now, they run up to us, they’re giving us hugs…I think that sometimes with kids, words are not as easy, but they show us with the hugs.”
Although they were only there for a week, Mr. Llena was optimistic that the teens could make a positive impact on the children of Newcomb, just by showing them love and care.
He said, “What we do here is we try to make that lasting impression for them. To be [in] service to others—that is what we’re here for at Catholic Heart Workcamp. We are here to serve others in the example of God, and hopefully one day the kids will follow our example and become the best person that they can be.”
Catholic Heart Workcamp wasn’t the only program to bring young volunteers to the Diocese of Knoxville this summer. Alive in You is a national Catholic conference and service camp held in multiple cities. Hosted at Notre Dame High School, the Alive in You conference in Chattanooga gathered more than 400 youth from all over the country to serve at local nonprofits.
Six girls from St. Joseph Parish in Fayetteville, Ark., and their chaperone volunteered at the Home Place, a housing facility for at-risk or homeless people with HIV/AIDS.
The volunteers trimmed and tidied the landscaping around the Home Place, fixed and painted a broken fence, and cleaned the windows. They also did cleaning inside the house. Christine Shackleford said she was happy to help the Home Place residents.
“They have a lot of other things to worry about, getting their life back together, being on their medications. They don’t need to be doing this kind of stuff. This is the kind of thing we need to be helping out with,” she said.
The Home Place has had Alive in You groups come for several years, and the residents are always happy to see the young people arrive.
Kristie Long-Withey, program manager for the Home Place, said the facility has very limited maintenance funds and that many of the residents are disabled and struggle with jobs like pulling weeds or scrubbing baseboards.
“When these young, energetic teenage volunteers from Alive in You come in here for three days doing these things for us, it takes a big weight off us,” she said. “We are so appreciative for everything they do, and they are always so polite to the residents, smiling and laughing and bringing such a positive energy to the Home Place.”
Lupe Lopez has chaperoned several mission trips for St. Joseph youth. She said she loves encouraging young people to get involved and helping them realize what they can contribute to those in need.
“I continue to try to encourage these girls to come out and help other people, just for them, for their self-esteem, to be able to speak out and say, ‘OK, where can I help you?’ I think we all need to do that,” she said. ■