August 4, 2006

Young at heart:
Catholic Heart Workcamp changes teens’ lives

By John Shaughnessy

NEW ALBANY—As soon as the song started playing on the radio, Danielle Cummins and the rest of the teenagers in the kitchen yelled, “Turn it up!”

Someone reached for the volume dial and the room rocked with the sounds of The Romantics joyfully proclaiming, “What I like about you, you really know how to dance, when you go up down, jump around, think about true romance.”

Suddenly, the paint brushes and the rollers in the hands of the teenagers matched the tempo of the bouncy beat. When Cummins started dancing in the middle of the kitchen floor, the other teenagers smiled while they belted out the lyrics of “What I Like About You.”

It was a spontaneous moment of fun, work, spirit and even faith, reflecting the themes that brought more than 300 Catholic youths from across the country to donate a week of their summer vacation to do community service in this southern Indiana city.

For Danielle, like many of the youths who volunteered, the week of July 9-15 at the Catholic Heart Workcamp changed her life and her perspective.

“It’s been the best week ever,” said the 17-year-old youth from Dodgeville, Wis. “I like to have a good time, but this has also brought me a ton closer to God. I’ve not been very strong in my faith, and this has brought me a lot closer. I put down my walls. I let myself enjoy going to Mass every day and enjoy everything.”

For Keith Stormes, the week was a revelation about the current generation of young people. All week, the director of St. Elizabeth, the Catholic Charities pregnancy and adoption services agency in New Albany, found a lot to like about the youths who painted the offices and residence which provides housing, counseling and education for young women in unexpected or crisis pregnancies.

“You just have to be impressed with their attitude,” Stormes said. “When I was in high school, I wasn’t focused on helping others. Their attitude and their maturity stand out, but they still love life and they’re still teenagers. The

values they exhibit and the way they choose to help others speak volumes about this generation.”

Developing that attitude of faith and service among youths is the goal of Catholic Heart Workcamp, a Florida-based organization that has held camps in more than 30 cities across the country this summer, drawing upon the gifts of thousands of Catholic youths. Stressing spiritual growth through a week of service, prayer, faith-sharing and the sacraments, the camps try to help youths live as disciples of Christ.

The camps also have another goal—to show that the Catholic faith isn’t boring. Skits, videos, live music and laughter fill the free moments during the camp.

At 17, Colin Barrett of North Carolina weaved his way past ladders and painters as a Bruce Springsteen song roared from a CD player in the background.

“This is tangible faith,” said Colin, taking a break from painting at St. Elizabeth, which is home to about 50 young women a year. “You can see Christ when you’re doing this. You’re doing work for someone else. We come from different places, but we come together to get the job done.”

Springsteen gave way to The Who on the CD player as Chelsea Lavalle paused from painting to talk about the impact that helping others has had on her life.

“This is the second site where we’ve worked,” Chelsea said. “We helped a man who had cerebral palsy. We stained his [handicap] ramps and put soft slips in his bathroom so he won’t slide all over the place. I didn’t think I could do a whole week of this, but it’s such a great experience. A lot of people work hard. No one slacks off. I think it’s great for teenagers, especially for their faith.”

Each day began with Mass. In the evening, after a day of work, the youth groups came together for social and spiritual programs. The program mentioned most often by the youths is called Four Corners. In the program, the corners of a large room are set up for four areas of spiritual life: faith, reconciliation, prayer for other people, and “peace and healing.” The experience was emotional for many participants, leaving more than a few in tears.

“I used to doubt my faith because I didn’t know a lot about it,” said Sarah Finis, 15, of Chicago. “I definitely don’t doubt it now.”

Chris Cardin, a youth minister, watched the difference that the work camp made as the week unfolded.

“At the beginning of the camp, kids are shy and timid,” said Cardin, the youth minister of St. Mary and St. Augustine parishes in Platteville, Wis. “By the end of the camp, they build bonds of love. It gives them a network of Catholic faith-filled people to share their faith journey. It really makes their faith come alive. One of the things about our Catholic faith is service and justice work. This really helps kids experience it firsthand.”

For Brian Kapraun, one of the best experiences was painting a cross on an office wall at the center. After he used a dark rose paint for the cross, each of the youth volunteers in his group dipped their hands in a mint-green paint and pressed them on the rose-colored cross.

“You’re making so many friends and you’re having such a good time, it’s really tough to leave,” said Brian, 16, of Washing-ton, Ill. “You want to stay another week. It’s not just to hang out either. You want to work. After you’re finished, you really feel you’ve accomplished something.”

Stormes knew how much the youths accomplished. The director of St. Eliza-beth could see the difference in the new paint shades of white, opal basil, Bombay gold and somerset mauve that covered the walls. He also recognized the symmetry of how their efforts were helping young women who often feel alone and vulnerable as they struggle during pregnancy.

“We have a transitional home here where they can live with the child and learn to be a parent,” Stormes said. “We’ve had some pretty remarkable stories.”

He shared the story of Teresa—a woman who was devastated about becoming pregnant—and how St. Elizabeth helped her continue her college education after she became a mother. Teresa earned a college degree in chemistry and works at a laboratory in Louisville, Ky.

He also shared the story of Heather, a former resident who came to St. Elizabeth when she was pregnant and homeless.

“She was almost in mourning that she was pregnant, almost ashamed,” Stormes recalled. “She said we taught her everything from making a bed to balancing a checkbook. She got married to the father of the baby. She’s working as an administrative assistant and doing very well. She and her husband own their own home. She’s appreciative of all the services we gave her.”

Stormes has the same sense of appreciation for the young volunteers who provided a fresh coat of paint to the Catholic Charities agency—and a fresh perspective on young people.

“It’s almost contagious being around them,” Stormes said. “It’s just a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. If these are the people who are following us, I don’t have any worries.”

(For more information about the Catholic Heart Workcamp, call 407-678-0073 or check the organization’s Web site at †

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