A lifelong call to service

Alive in You Camp inspires nation’s Catholic teens to get involved in service projects — away and at home

By Alyssa Neuhoff

In Mass, readings talk about helping those around us. We are taught to give to those less fortunate and encouraged to be a Good Samaritan.

While serving in the community can be hard to put into practice, it is something most everyone is called to do, especially as Catholics. Catholic youth are no exception.

There is a special opportunity for parish teens to put this teaching into action. For the past 14 summers, Heather and Jim Weir have directed the “Alive in You” service camp and conference for young Catholics.

What began as a relief program following Hurricane Katrina has grown into a camp that serves communities all across the country. “Alive in You” is helping to promote and instill a practical understanding of service in teens who attend the camp. It also encourages them to bring back this enthusiasm for service to their own communities.

“A huge goal is to take the Catholic social teaching aspect of what we do and help them see the bigger picture. It really inspires them to change and look at how they can help and serve in their own community. As Catholics, it’s a lifelong call to service and to help people in need,” Mr. Weir said.

Participants of all ages in the Alive in You Camp take part in Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Students in grades eight through 12 sign up with their parish and join other church groups to learn about the service opportunities in their communities and how to help those in need.

The goal of Alive in You is to “put them in a position where they can learn about their faith, serve the community, and at the same time build their own community as they do work within their parish and at each of our locations,” Mr. Weir said.

“That’s the main goal.”

This summer, Alive in You camps were hosted in Tampa, Fla., Columbia, S.C., St. Louis, Dallas, and twice in Knoxville. The six five-day programs have attracted some 1,500 teens this year. The youth and adult volunteers from each participating church arrive on a Tuesday, and the next three days of camp are devoted to worship in the morning, service all afternoon around the hosting city, with the teens returning each evening for more fellowship and time to attend Mass and adoration.

Each group is assigned a local business or volunteer organization that benefits residents in the surrounding area. Some groups even assist individuals who might need help with painting, yard work, or other odd jobs around their houses. To wrap up the busy week, teens participate in a conference segment that includes workshops, talks, music, and teambuilding, all of which begins Friday evening and finishes Sunday with the final Mass.

This was not the Diocese of Knoxville’s first year hosting Alive in You. The camp travels to locations where there is a willingness to host the several hundred young Catholics. Sacred Heart Cathedral School opened its doors to welcome the campers for a second consecutive year.

Mandi Whittaker, service work coordinator for the Knoxville camp who has been involved for the past 12 years, said, “Bishop [Stika] has been really, really supportive of Alive in You. Last year we were here only one week and he asked us ‘Hey, can you come back?’”

Bishop Stika greets some of the colorful campers following Mass at the cathedral.

The bishop celebrated the opening and closing Masses during the two camps at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

For Knoxville’s two camps, Ms. Whittaker organized daylong service projects for each of the 10 church groups that attended, assigning where they would go and who they would help.

She coordinated their visits to places like the Red Cross, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, Wesley House, The Restoration House of East Tennessee, soup kitchens, adult daycare centers, and anywhere else that could use the help of several hundred energetic teens.

The Daily Living Center in North Knoxville was one of the sites benefiting from the campers’ spirit of service.

The center is one of 26 programs of the Office on Aging within the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee. All programs within the Office on Aging work to support seniors and help them live happy, healthy lives in their own homes.

The Daily Living Center helps them accomplish that goal by being an adult daycare center where caregivers can drop off the seniors for the day while they go to work and pick them up on the way home. It is open Monday-Friday and is free to qualified residents. There is even a transportation program that can pick up the elderly residents.

Samantha Pohlot, coordinator of retired and senior volunteers for the CAC Office on Aging, said her office really doesn’t have a budget for maintenance projects at its facilities, so volunteer help from groups like the Alive In You ministry is very welcome.

“Groups like this make it possible for our services to be free to qualified residents. We have no budget for contractors, so this is an awesome thing these kids are doing,” Ms. Pohlot said.

There were six campers painting the Daily Living Center interior.  Ms. Pohlot said another two dozen campers cleared the lot of an elderly resident, whose residence was overgrown with vegetation. Ms. Pohlot said this resident’s home was in disrepair and work could not be done on much-needed repairs until the overgrowth surrounding the home could be cleared away.

Alive in You campers give the Daily Living Center in Knoxville a fresh coat of paint and perform other jobs to update the facility.

“They are so wonderful and compassionate and hardworking,” Ms. Pohlot said.

The groups from each church liked to stick together, only splitting up when they were larger than needed at each space. And when they returned in the evening, they had time to talk to other groups about their work.

Although the camp ended July 7, the goal of Alive in You is to inspire participating the kids to bring service back to their own community.

“The main thing I love about Alive in You is that everyone feels like they need to go overseas to make a difference. There are people [here], you just have to look for them. They’re really no different than us. It’s just that some people need a little bit more help. I hope that when they come [to camp], they see that they don’t have to go by plane to a different country [to be of service], that they can just help somebody here,” Ms. Whittaker said.

She pointed out that the campers look forward to visiting different cities and meeting people from other states.

“We’ve had people from Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas. The teens get really excited when it’s a new city every year,” she said, noting that bringing together so many people from so many different places is not only exciting, but eye-opening. “I think the beautiful part of it, too, especially for teenagers, is you don’t realize how big the Catholic Church is. The beautiful thing of coming to camp with other groups is you realize the universality of the Church. It’s always really neat for them to see that they’re part of something bigger.”

Mr. Weir said the biggest goal is that they don’t just say ‘that was a great week at camp,’ they are inspired to seek out needs in their own community.

Mr. Weir and Ms. Whittaker believe exposing the campers to the needs of Knoxville or other cities they visit and working with people they might not have encountered before encourages them to find similar facilities near their homes where they give their time, talent, and hard work.

“The teens are really just inspiring us all,” Ms. Whittaker said.

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