VICTOR — A group of teens descended upon the home of an elderly woman on Aug. 2, weeding her flower beds, edging her garden, and dragging brush and debris out of her yard on a large tarp.
The teens talked and laughed as they worked, and some of the older ones shared stories about the woman and the friendships they’ve formed with her through their annual trip to clean up her yard.
This combination of service and relationships — both between the teens and between the teens and the woman they were helping — encapsulates the goals of St. Benedict Parish’s Summer Service Camp, according to the camp’s organizers.
During the weeklong camp, teens and adult volunteers from St. Benedict as well as St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Ontario go out and serve at a number of different sites in the community, including the House of Mercy in Rochester, a camp for migrant farmworkers in Wayne County and CareNet Pregnancy Center in Canandaigua, as well as the homes of elderly and homebound individuals throughout the area, according to Andrew Uttaro, youth minister and coordinator of middle- and high-school faith formation at St. Benedict.
The actual volunteer work, however, is just one component of the service camp, noted Dawn Burdick, who founded the program in 2008 while she was serving as the parish’s youth minister.
“I can’t emphasize enough that the week is not about the work, but about the people the kids meet, the stories they hear and their reflection on what God is doing and how he is calling them,” said Burdick, who currently is pastoral associate and director of St. Benedict’s Growing In Faith Together program.
The reflection Burdick is referring to takes place at Notre Dame Retreat House, the teens’ home base during the camp. Every morning the teens wake up at the retreat house, which sits high on a hill overlooking Canandaigua Lake, eat breakfast and pray before heading out to the day’s various service sites. They return to the retreat house in the evening to eat dinner, pray, and break into small groups to discuss and reflect upon their experiences that day, Uttaro said.
“Without gathering each night to talk about what happened during the day, addressing the challenging things the kids heard and saw, the work becomes just a nice thing they did,” Burdick explained. “By processing the events of the day we (are) able to find God in the midst of hardships, and begin to discern why God is calling us to this ministry.”
Burdick said she was inspired to found the service camp — and include reflection and processing as a central component — by a 2007 service trip she took to Mississippi with her niece’s youth group from Massachusetts. The group spent the week fixing up the home of an older couple who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina two years earlier, and during the course of the week the teens formed a deep bond with the couple. Burdick knew right away that she wanted to start something similar back at home, although she did tweak the format a bit.
“We were going to stay local and not travel. This was an intentional decision on my part, as I wanted our young people to know that service in the name of Christ doesn’t occur only in far-away places, but it is around us at all times,” Burdick said. “This isn’t a component that only happens one week a year, but that can and should happen every day.”
That message seems to be getting through to service camp participants, as Burdick said a number of past participants have told her their experiences at camp guided their career choices.
Uttaro is one such young adult. He was just entering his freshman year in high school when he participated in Burdick’s first service camp. He said his experiences at the camp throughout his high-school and even college years got him hooked on service and inspired him to major in social work at Niagara University.
Now back at service camp again, this time in a leadership role, Uttaro tries to ensure that the teens in his charge understand the reason why they’re going out and edging gardens, painting houses and providing companionship for inner-city children during the weeklong camp.
“The importance of service is so rooted in the Gospels. We hear about Jesus, we talk about Jesus, but Jesus served,” Uttaro remarked. “I think encountering others is a very important part of it, encountering people who you either didn’t see before or had misconceptions about. We often don’t realize there are these people who live among us that might need help.”
These encounters have led many service camp participants to have the type of bonding experiences Burdick hoped for when she founded the camp. JuJu Braniecki and Ellie Johnson, both 18, both have participated in service camp at least a half-dozen times and have developed a friendship with the woman who lives in the Victor home where they were working Aug. 2.
“You just get this feeling at the end that you did something good, and it’s a feeling you just want to keep experiencing,” Johnson explained.