One Week Could Change My Life: Engaging Youth in Faith-Filled Service
My wife and I are parents of three young adults. Each of our daughters loves their Catholic faith but their journeys were unique. One thing in common was that all of them engaged in summer mission experiences with our parish through Young Neighbors in Action. Looking back, it feels like their mission experience helped faith stick in their lives and helped them grow a faith that they could take with them into their college and young adult lives.
Lauren was a youth participant this year from Diocese of Rochester. Her experience reminded me of the stories I would hear from our girls:
“I never thought that one week could change my life. After spending a week at Young Neighbors in Action, however, I realized that I am not the same person that I was before I left home. What I gained from the experience is not easy to put into words. And yet I know I will never look at the world the same way again. Just in the short walk from our work site to our car, we would every day see multiple homeless people, begging, or simply sitting beside the road. We made an effort to give away all the leftovers from our lunches to the homeless people we encountered. Though it may seem like a simple action, this was one of the most eye-opening parts of the trip for me. Before this experience, I used to hurry past the homeless and beggars like many people, avoiding eye contact, viewing these human beings through the lens of fear. Even a glance or a smile I did not consider giving; why give something so human to the people whose humanity I was trying so hard to ignore? Through our nightly discussions about Catholicism and life, and our daily experiences with children and adults at our work site, I began to connect the dots. Every person on the earth has their own burdens, and each has within them a divine soul. If there is something you can give, just a smile or a sandwich, what you are really doing is recognizing this person’s inherent dignity, given to them by God. Poverty, mental illness, nor any amount of sin can diminish it. What is tragic is when people come to believe that it can. The dignity of the human person; a phrase that is easy to comprehend intellectually, but much, much harder to live out in your everyday life. I was challenged to look at people who were very different from me, in race, wealth, and life experience. For perhaps the first time in my life, I saw these people not as “the poor” or “the needy”, an obstacle to be overcome, but as individual human beings.”
“My group was assigned to work at a camp. Basically, this was a summer camp for kids living in a neighborhood of extreme violence and poverty. The street was nicknamed “siren alley” because of the almost hourly sirens we would hear, the result of people calling 9-1-1 for basic medical care they could not afford. I will never forget the children I met that week. In particular, I remember a little boy named William, who adopted me as his second buddy. I came into the camp ready to give love to children who didn’t have much at home, but it turned out, I only had to give my smile and my presence and I received so much more in return. William would grab my hand, or come up behind me and hug me (“guess who?” “who is it?” “it’s Madison!” “hmmm...that doesn’t sound like Madison...is it William?” “how did you know??”). He was so willing to love me right off the bat, like most of the kids we met. This is by far the most important lesson I learned all week: just smile, smile at everyone no matter what. The people who are living in shadows are the people who need it the most.”
When I talk to youth, it is clear to me that there is a not a shortage of young people who are willing to engage in an adventure of faith and service in the summer. The shortage is the time and attention of adults and faith communities willing to make that happen. Now is the time to be on the lookout for people who could help youth change their life and grow in faith. Who are the adults who could make this happen? Who are the young people just waiting to serve and grow, and meet Christ in those in need?
Learn how you can join a life-changing week of service learning this next summer
by visiting Young Neighbors in Action (for high school youth) and Just5Days (for middle school youth).