By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Summer can be a time of rest and relaxation. But a group of students from Mater Dei Catholic High School used it as an opportunity to refocus on their faith, diving into service and contemplating what God wants of them.
The 10 students participated for the first time in the Catholic Heart Workcamp, a summer program that provides Catholic teens with meaningful, faith-filled mission trips.
They spent a week in June in Indianapolis, Ind., helping churches and non-profits assist the city’s most vulnerable.
For 16-year-old Mason Schrage, that meant sorting donated clothing and other items for use both in Indianapolis and overseas. “Some went to people who needed it, other items went to a thrift store with all the profits funding homeless programs,” he says.
Abby McElhose, 18, a recent Mater Dei graduate, sorted donations as well, including produce donated by local grocery stores to a food pantry.
“We spent a day sorting good cabbage from bad cabbage,” she says. “It was gross, but fun.”
Both say the experience of serving, as well as the faith formation activities the camp offered, spoke straight to their souls.
“This was an awe-inspiring event for me,” Schrage says. “Being surrounded by so many people who are so strong in their faith – it really went beyond my expectations. I definitely want to go back next year.”
McElhose says she’d like to return as well to work at the camp during the summers. “I’d highly recommend it to any young people in the area who want to grow in their faith,” she says.
Catholic Heart Workcamp started in Orlando, Fla. in 1993 and the organization now offers camps in 45 cities in the continental U.S., as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Grenada. Last year, more than 13,000 students participated.
This was the first year that Mater Dei has joined them, says Molly Cowgill, a teacher at the high school and one of the adult chaperones for the trip.
“This was definitely a trial year,” she says as the group prepared to return home. “And they loved it. They’re still beaming from it. They had an awesome time.”
The group set out early the morning of June 9 for Indianapolis. Their base while at the camp was St. Pius X Catholic School, where they slept in sleeping bags in classrooms.
Cowgill says the Mater Dei students were among 175 campers from across the Midwest, and work teams were distributed so that both the students and the adult chaperones got to work with people they didn’t know. “It gave them a great perspective, spending time with other kids like them who were passionate to serve others.”
Schrage says he made friends at camp with whom he plans to stay in touch.
The 22 work teams fanned out to various Indianapolis service organizations, including food pantries, soup kitchens and day care providers.
In addition, the campers worshipped together at Mass and had evening faith activities. Schrage described an event called “Four Corners,” in which students are invited to a candlelit room for prayer and reflection, along with an opportunity for Reconciliation.
“It really got to me,” he says. “It felt good to talk and get things off my chest that had been bothering me.”
McElhose notes that the group also had a chance to participate in Eucharistic Adoration. “A lot of kids don’t get to experience that,” she says.
And there were still opportunities for more lively participation: games, skits, music, a dance party.
“It was a lot of fun,” McElhose says. “Even the prayer times were enjoyable.”
In most cases, the money for the trip came from the students’ individual parish youth groups, Cowgill says.
With the success of this trip, all involved say they hope Mater Dei continues to participate in the camp.
“They’re working hard to instill a love of Christ-like service,” Cowgill says. “It impressed me, how willing (the students) were to get involved, and open themselves up to prayer and praise.”
Schrage says he came into the camp not really knowing what to expect. “I came out of it with more confidence,” he says. “Whether you’re Catholic or not, it’s a great experience for anyone.”
And McElhose, who begins college in the fall to study early childhood education, recommends that teens going on future trips should do so “with an open heart.”
“Go into the experience and get the most you can out of it,” she says.
For more information about Catholic Heart Workcamp offerings, visit the organization’s website at heartworkcamp.com