Nine teens spread love, elbow grease in Appalachia

By Karen Baker, Contributing writer

Nine teenagers, four adults, 1,600 miles (roundtrip) and plenty of beef jerky.

That’s the short story of a summer mission trip organized by Father John Tran, pastor of Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville.

The longer story is this: About this time last year, Father Tran was trying to decide what to raise money for through #iGiveCatholic, the online giving day organized by The Catholic Foundation each November. Since he has a great desire to help young people (and all people) grow in their faith, Father Tran wanted to organize a mission trip for youth.

With the help of three other adult chaperones – Steve Sperier, Maria Dum and Madeline Saucier – as well as $8,000 in contributions, plans were made for a summer mission trip.

Destination: The Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center in Louisa, Kentucky, which assists local residents with food, home repairs and other needs.

Nine teenagers eagerly signed up, and the mission team hit the road July 8, taking two days and plenty of snacks (including a crowd favorite – beef jerky) to reach their destination.

When the team returned to Mary Queen of Peace on July 16, everyone agreed that the trip was an eye-opening experience; they shared stories of installing windows, repairing floors, fending off hogs and forging friendships with each other, the families they helped and their pastor, who came to be known as “Papa John.” (He was the one, they said,  who supplied never-ending snacks.)

“The trip was amazing,” said Gabby Berger, 16. “I got to meet so many new people and help others in a way that I have never been able to before.”

Gabby, a Mandeville High student, said she was touched by the kindness of the family they met.

“The thing that was the most surprising to me was the happiness and generosity of the people we were helping. They gave us things when they didn’t have anything themselves.”

Gabby and the others in her group helped install subflooring in the trailer home of a woman named Linda. Although that repair seemed small compared to the overall need, the time spent with Linda and her family was a great experience, chaperone Steve Sperier said.

“It is not whether we fix the problem or not, it is just that we are faithful and answer the call. I have thought a great deal about poverty in general during and since the trip. I don’t have a solution and probably never will, but we have to try.  The work we did on the trailer was putting a Band-Aid on a giant chest wound. The trailer really needs to be replaced, but it will be warmer and safer because of our efforts.”

The home of a resident named Emma Jean, meanwhile, now has windows that don’t need duct tape to stay shut.

“They were so appreciative,” said Maria Dum, librarian at Mary Queen of Peace School, who was humbled by the fact that so many in the area cannot read and yet are still so well-informed.

Dum was also pleasantly surprised about how easy the teens made chaperone duty. “They were phenomenal,” she said. “They were self-sufficient, got up on time, and were ready to work.” Although the group members did not know one another at the start, they grew together throughout the week.

And the week was jam-packed. Each day started with Mass at 7 a.m. at St. Jude Catholic Church, followed by breakfast and then off to the work site or food pantry.

“It was lively and exhausting,” said Curtis Zuckerman, 17, a student at St. Paul’s School. “It was lively due to the work and play, and for the same reasons it was exhausting.”

After a day at work, the group would go back to the mission center for dinner and games. For some, the late-night games were a highlight, especially when “Papa John” got into the middle of the fun. The games helped them grow together, though all agreed they also bonded through work and the time they spent in prayer each day.

“This experience deepened my faith because it showed me how people can have so little and still have an extremely strong faith in God and his plan for us,” Gabby said.

The summer mission team learned much about God’s plans and presence on their trip, and they came home with plenty of stories to share.

For one thing, 14-year-olds Ella Sperier and Mary Dum agreed, it was amazing how everyone in the area knew everyone else, even though the houses were miles apart.

It was also funny, in retrospect, how they ended up at the wrong house at first and were chased by a hog.

Finally, Sperier said that he learned one thing with certainty on the mission trip: “It would be very hard to outwork Father John! He is a true servant, and he leads by example.”

The pastor was always serving others, whether it was the homeowners, the teenagers, the other mission groups or anyone else, Sperier said.

For his part, Father Tran couldn’t say enough about his team: “I am so proud of them. We could not have asked for a greater group of kids.”

After 1,600 miles, five days filled with prayer and hard work, and plenty of beef jerky, the nine teens and four adults grew closer to one another, closer to the poor and, ultimately closer to the Lord.

It was a trip well worth “giving Catholic” to accomplish.

Karen Baker can be reached at kbaker@clarionherald.org.

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