As some of you know, I took last week off from work for vacation. I didn’t go anywhere exotic, it wasn’t a week laying on the beach and it definitely was not a week full of sleep and relaxation. For the past week, I have been out of touch with the modern world. I took 5 1/2 days off from work to chaperone my church’s mission trip to Queens, NY.
In a brief summary, I slept on a gym floor with no A/C, the showers had cold water and no water pressure, and that is when the water was actually running, it was the hottest week of the summer so far and I was running around outside, basically feeling as gross as ever for a week. That said, I had the best week I could have asked for. I served others. I witnessed teens grow and give more of themselves than I would have ever done at their age. I was reminded of my real purpose in this world. In short, I cannot think of a better way for me to have spent half of my vacation time this year.
On Friday I left work halfway through the day to come home and finish packing up before heading to URI for the weekend for the Steubenville East Conference with about 60 teens from St. Mary’s youth group. After a relatively uneventful trip up to URI, Rob & I met up with our group during the opening festivities, right before adoration. Being there before adoration began was wonderful as it gave me time to focus on why I was there and to remove everything else going on in my life from my mind. Once the whole opening festivities were over, we had a chance to break into our small groups. For the weekend I co-lead my group with one of the most wonderful women I have ever met; my friend Lynn. We had a group of 5 teens that we sporadically met up with during the weekend to debrief and discuss with. By the end of Friday, I was completely overwhelmed, but in a good way. There was just so much going through my head and I had just witnessed about 1500 teens blowing my mind away in adoration.
Saturday came soon enough, especially due to the little sleep I had Friday night. After breakfast we split into women’s and men’s sessions. The women met in the basketball stadium and after a very lively rendition of Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me, we were blessed to hear Shannon Deitz‘s witness. Shannon’s witness was followed by the most entertaining mass I have ever sat through. Fr. Jose, accompanied by about 12-15 other priests and brothers, said mass for all of us. Fr. Jose’s homily may have been the longest homily I have ever heard, but it was also one of the few that I have been so enthralled in what he was saying that I didn’t want it to end. I mean, have you ever started singing na-na-na-na in the middle of a mass? Fr. Jose taught the kids to say good-bye to the people and things in their life that are holding them back (well, actually he wants them to say na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, ADIOS BABY!). After some lunch and down time, we headed off to workshops followed by some more small group time. Saturday evening’s session again included adoration but this time, Fr. Jose walked around the stadium with the monstrance giving almost everyone a chance to reach out and touch Jesus Christ. After this powerful experience, we were again given some time to regroup in our small groups before heading to bed.
After packing the cargo van and eating some breakfast, Sunday was spent in the basketball stadium again. We were all blessed with Joia Farmer‘s witness and lots of praise and worship before mass and heading out for Youth Works. Once mass was over, we headed to the parking lot to take a group picture and head out to Queens. In the process of splitting up into our cars, saying good-bye to the few people who were heading home and taking our group picture, one of the mini-vans we rented got a flat tire. Since I had met the crew at URI, I took 4 seniors, Mike, Annie, Courtney & Joan, who were in a car with one of the chaperones who was heading home; Mike was our navigator (and I must say he did a great job). Once the picture was taken, all of us loaded up cars and headed for Queens while Lynn stayed back with Bob and all the kids from both their cars to wait for AAA to come and fix the tire. The rest of us headed down 95 and stopped at Hammonasset State Park for lunch. We ate some pizza, walked the beach and watched 8 of the kids jump in (and get thrown into the Long Island Sound). Once they attempted to dry off, we loaded up our cars once more and headed for Jamaica, Queens. We arrived in Queens a bit later than expected due to Sunday afternoon traffic on I-95. When we did arrive, we were greeted by our Youth Works staff and unloaded all our cars and cargo into the building we would be sleeping in.
The girls slept upstairs in the gymnasium while the guys were on the first floor in the auditorium. Once our belongings were inside and sorted, it was time for dinner. The teens joined the Youth Works crew in the Club Room while the chaperones grabbed dinner and went to a meeting to get prepped for the week. Our days would all be structured about the same:
- work site
- evening activity
- church group time
Monday morning began at 7am with breakfast and being split into our work crews. Myself and Patty were the leaders for the GIANTS.We had 10 students in our group and after our daily devotions, we headed to Madison York Assisted Living Center. We spent the majority of the day with the elderly that live there. We talked, played cards, catch, BINGO, dominos and did puzzles with them. Since the center has a kosher kitchen, we took our lunches across the street and ate in Corona Park and played on the playground for a bit before heading back inside. That afternoon I had a very interesting talk with a gentleman who lived there named Salvador. He is an Italian man with 4 children, whom he does not see often. He explained to me that they live far away and with their own children and work they do not have the time to visit him often. This hit me hard and made me feel sad for him. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have no family around and no visitors; whenever someone from my family has been in the hospital or a nursing home, they always have at least one or two visitors a day. We also talked about faith. He said he no longer believed in any religion. He only believed in his mother and father and good people and bad people. After his parents both died, he did not believe there could be a God. He explained to me in very broken-English what he experienced as a child and that loosing his father at such a young age along with what a priest in Italy did to him as a child, he left the church. When I asked him about whether he believed in Heaven and Hell he said “no”. I kept discussing this with him as I did not understand why he believed that people choose to be good or bad but that does not affect them after death. He believes that when you die, that’s it. You get buried and there is no more. He does not want to believe that there could be more, just that people can be good or bad while here on earth and there is no real reason to choose either, just however you wish to live your life. He told me that he thought that what I was doing was being a good person and almost made me cry. Once we were back at the church we stayed at, we had a break to change and relax before dinner and our night activity. Our dinner was soft tacos and/or taco salad. (A note about our meals at Youth Works — all of our breakfasts and dinners were prepared by different work crews. The breakfast crew woke up early to go to the kitchen and prepare breakfast before anyone else was awake. While down in the Club Room for breakfast we would also pack bagged lunches for the day. Dinners were also prepared by a work crew. And both breakfast and dinner dishes were washed and put away by a work crew.) On Monday night we headed to Rockaway Beach for our evening activity. We were unable to go swimming due to the time and the riptide, but the boys kept busy playing football while the girls played Face and talked by the water’s edge. We then headed back for Club where the group was able to share “Yay! Gods” and “Mad Props”. “Yay! Gods” was a way for them to share how they saw Christ working through another person (or people) that day and “Mad Props” was a time to encourage others for doing good and setting up to the plate that day. Club also included some praise & worship along with a teaching/witness from one of our Youth Work’s staff members, Daniel. We then broke into our small groups. I had the same small group as at Steubenville, expect my co-leader was not Lynn as she had headed home. I was paired with Steve, who even though he was new to the group, was able to guide and lead the kids so wonderfully this week.
Tuesday was very similar to Monday. My work group went to the same work site. The only difference during the day was instead of walking across to the park, we jumped in our cars and drove to the Marina at the other end of the park for lunch. We headed to the marina to meet up with another work group who was painting benches that day so they would have some other company besides the 5 of them. Leaving the Assisted Living Home was hard, even though we had only been there for 2 days. We made such good relationships with the people there in that short time, we didn’t want to leave them. We learned that one of the older men that we took for a walk that day usually sits in the Rec room doing nothing and not interacting with the others. We not only took him for a walk, but played cards with him and brought him to the Exercise room to play catch. Knowing we had helped one man do things he wouldn’t normally do made me see how much good we really were doing. We headed back to Jamaica to meet up with everyone. After break we had some pizza for dinner before heading to Corona Park in Flushing, NY for a photo scavenger hunt. In our work groups we needed to get photos of the following:
- a picture playing with a borrowed toy from someone in the park
- a picture dancing with Julio (one of the YW staff members)
- a picture spelling a word in the grass
- a picture being as relaxed as possible
- a picture with a stranger acting out a scene from the bible (our team borrowed a little girl and took a picture of the nativity scene which won most creative picture)
- a picture of human bowling
- a picture with the ice cream lady
- a picture catching a frisbee or football mid-air
- a picture of a human pyramid in front of a historical person
- a picture jumping like kangaroos in front of Australia on the Unisphere
After the photo scavenger hunt, we had some free time in the park before heading back for Club. Instead of small groups on Tuesday night we had mass said by one of the priests from our Church who came down just to say mass for us.
On Wednesday we went to a different work site. The Giants & the Jets spent the morning planning two days of Kids Club. Kids Club is a day camp for kids in the area to come from 12-3 everyday for a safe place to play and learn about God. We played with the kids for a while, then brought them to the park across the street. The park has fountains that they kids used to fill cups, bottles and bags to get us drenched. We were soaked and the sun was not out, so we were cold too. We took a break from playing with the kids to pray with them, sing some songs and then did some arts and crafts. When it was time to pray, I lead the group in prayer where the kids would repeat every line after me. We thanked God for our friends, for the fun we had, for a new day and the like. When I finished praying, a boy no older than 6 or 7 added a line to his prayer — he didn’t want to be killed that night. This really got to me. It’s not something that I have ever had to pray about; it’s not something that I’ve ever had to think about. Hearing a little kid have to ask God for this blew me away. I can’t imagine being in a place where this is something that you need to ask for; I’ve always taken for granted the fact that I live in a safe community and don’t need to worry about this even though many people do have to worry about it. This little kid wasn’t the only one who touched me and make me realize how blessed I am that day. For dinner on Wednesday we served and mingled with the community at the soup kitchen that the church we were staying at has every Wed. night. We ate dinner before the soup kitchen opened to the public. When people started coming in, many of us were cleaning up our dinner. I ate dinner with two of my friends and since one of them was off to serve dinner, I took the liberty to clean up all our dinners by combining the garbage together so I could stack the plates. When Javier was on his way to the garbage with a bowl that contained the combined remnants of 3 half eaten salads and fruit salads, a man stopped him to ask if he was going to throw it out. When the man heard that the food was headed for the garbage he asked for it and despite the fact that it had already been eaten from, he took it to eat it. Knowing that someone was eating my leftovers that were headed for the trash, leftovers that were the combined parts of two dishes from each of 3 people really hit me. I realized that I have a privilege to trow away food I don’t want or like. I knew that throwing out some of my food wouldn’t mean that I would go hungry. I knew I still had snack later that night and would continue eating 3 meals a day for the rest of the week. This guy however didn’t care that he was eating my leftovers because he hadn’t eaten yet that day. He wasn’t guaranteed to have a meal the next day. He had to hope he got to the soup kitchen before they ran out of food for that meal. I’ve always been told that I was lucky to be from Ridgefield, that I had all these privileges and opportunities that others didn’t. This whole week, especially Wednesday showed me this. Once the soup kitchen ended, we headed downstairs to the underground. The youth minister had a presentation and brought us a speaker to talk to us about truly being free from things so we could put God above all. After that we had WAR!!!!!!!!! It was the largest, most complicated card game of war I have ever witnessed and I will not explain it to anyone unless they are there to witness it. After war we had root beer floats, my small group/work group made 100 water balloons and we had our final small group.
Thursday was almost the same as Wednesday, however instead of planning for Kids Club we went to work sites for the morning as well. My car went to a day care center and played with the kids there for a couple of hours. Patty and her crew worked the soup kitchen at the church where we have Kids Club and the Jets headed to do some prep for a VBS. After our morning ministry sites and lunch, we all met for Kids Club. Since it was the final day of Kids Club for the week, it was water day. We had a water balloon toss and bucket races before heading to the park across the street for a sponge fight. Again, we all ended up soaked and freezing, but it was worth it for the kids to have the fun they did. After Kids Club ended, we packed up and headed back to the church to dry off and change into wet clothes. We had a little break and then headed right back to the church where Kids Club was at to have a community Bar-B-Q. There were a bunch of kids from Kids Club there with their families and a bunch of people from the soup kitchen that afternoon. Once the cookout was over, we headed back to the church we were staying at for one last time. We went down to the Club room for our final Club and then spent our church group time debriefing the week.
Friday morning began at 5:40am when all the girls woke up as quietly as possible to sneak out before the guys could come up to wake us. Once the boys’ found the sleeping area empty, we returned to finish packing up our bags and packing the cars. We ate some breakfast and then cleaned up the two buildings we were using. Once everything was cleaned, we closed with the Youth Works staff and headed to mass at a nearby Catholic Church. After mass, all but a handful of us pilled into the cars and headed for Jones Beach. While it was an extremely overcast day and the riptide was rough, we had a blast. We went swimming, the boys played some football and we hung out on the beach getting terrible sunburns before heading home. Fortunately we were able to get over the bridge and about half-way home before the rain hit, and it hit hard. We all headed back to St. Mary’s before heading home for showers and some much needed sleep.
I know this post was long but I still feel that it does not do my week justice. There is so much that I witnessed that cannot be put into words and described properly. Three of the seniors made a movie that shows more of the week and you can watch it here. Plus I’ve got tons of pictures you should check out on Facebook. It was a week truly just doing God’s work and serving others. The youth grew and bonded; the chaperones learned from the kids; it was everything you could ask for from a mission trip and so much more.