Try asking some teens to fork over $400 each so they can travel out of state to work for a week. Not a very enticing deal, huh?
Or, so one might think. Then how do you explain that 350 youths, plus numerous adult advisers, descended upon Ithaca July 15-21 for a week’s worth of making home repairs?
Brian Shook, for one, is quick to point out that the rewards of Group Workcamps Foundation are many.
“For me, one week a year you’re not being the kind of selfish person you usually are,” remarked Shook, 18, whose time in Ithaca marked his fourth stint with Group Workcamps. “It’s enjoyable and I look forward to it all year. The work itself is fun, and you meet new people and share things with all these different faiths. It’s an amazing experience. Spiritually, it really lifts you up.”
Group Workcamps is a nationwide ecumenical effort that began in 1977 in Colorado. The initiative features youths from numerous states and religious denominations who do summer volunteer labor in communities across the country. They also raise funds to cover their own expenses. This was the third year that Group Workcamps has visited Tompkins County, following camps in 2003 and 2005. The organization has worked in conjunction with Better Housing of Tompkins County to line up people in need of repairs, raise donations, secure supplies, and arrange lodging and meals.
More than half of this year’s young local workers were from two Catholic parishes: 130 from St. John Vianney Church in Wyoming, Mich.; and 46 from St. Kathryn Church in Hudson, N.H., which is Shook’s parish. Both contingents were honored during a Sunday Mass at Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Church — one of numerous local organizations that helped welcome the workers to town.
The laborers gave free repairs at several dozen homes of low-income and elderly residents in Tompkins County. They were broken up into crews of five youths and one adult adviser; each crew was assigned a home for such work as interior and exterior painting, construction of wheelchair ramps, and repairing of decks.
Shook helped scrape and paint a large house in Candor — so large, in fact, that it required two crews. He noted that the house’s only resident, a widow who is about 90 years old, quickly made friends with crew members.
“She sits on the porch and watches us work. She’s very nice, very curious about what we’re doing. She makes us lemonade every day — the best lemonade ever. It was so sweet,” Shook said. He added that this kind of reception is typical, saying beneficiaries of Group Workcamps “are so kind and so grateful for what you do. When you go home, the feeling is just amazing.”
Campers stayed at Boynton Junior High School for the week, with work beginning on Sunday afternoon. However, the Michigan and New Hampshire parishes had contacted Rich Rasmussen, Immaculate Conception’s youth minister, about coming in a day early due to the long drives they faced. Rasmussen arranged to have them sleep overnight Saturday on classroom floors at Immaculate Conception School. Due to the large numbers, St. Catherine of Siena Parish also pitched in by taking 28 girls from the New Hampshire group. Rasmussen added that local food businesses aided in this effort by providing meals.
At the 10:30 a.m. Mass on July 15, a priest from the Michigan parish concelebrated the liturgy with Father Leo Reinhardt, Immaculate Conception’s pastor. The out-of-staters sang “How Great Is Our God” after Communion, though they would have been hard to miss even if they hadn’t sung.
“I walked in there and they took up the whole front third of the church,” Rasmussen remarked.
The week in Ithaca marked the first Group Workcamp for Carol Holleran, an adult adviser from New Hampshire, and her 15-year-old daughter, Mary. Holleran and Rasmussen pointed out that the volunteer work performed — along with nightly gatherings that included music, prayer and personal reflection — helps negate perceptions that teens are only into such illicit activities as drugs and drinking.
“One of the most awesome things for me is watching all these teenagers, how good they are,” said Holleran, whose sister-in-law, Sister Madeline Rockwell, RSM, is from Immaculate Conception Parish. “You sit in these meetings at night and it brings tears to watch all these kids together. They’re just wonderful kids.”