It was a mission of service, but at its core, it was a mission of faith.
More than 200 teens and young adults from across the United States traveled to New Orleans in June with a mission to serve as part of the Catholic Heart Workcamp program.
Founded in 1993 by Steve and Lisa Walker of Orlando, Fla., Catholic Heart Workcamp (CHWC) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. What began as one camp with about 100 participants has evolved into 47 camps with more than 11,000 teen participants committing themselves to service.
This year’s local camp was stationed at St. Clement of Rome in Metairie, where the teens slept in classrooms and showered outside in makeshift stations constructed of tarps, PVC pipes and hoses. This youth-friendly camp is intended to empower teenagers to share and experience God’s love while helping those in need.
Faiths leads to service
Janeen Rodrigue has been the manager of the camp in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the last 17 years, and she described Catholic Heart Workcamp as a way for teens “to live out their baptismal call to serve.”
Rodrigue coordinated all of the work sites for the week. This year, the campers served with Habitat for Humanity, Boys Hope Girls Hope, Ozanam Inn and several other organizations. Many teens also worked at the homes of individuals or families.
“Service can be seen anywhere,” said Katie Endelicato, team captain in New Orleans. “We work in any community that is in need,” One group of teenagers assisted Violet, a single mother with six children, two of whom are autistic.
“She was struggling to do work around her house,” adult group leader Mickie Mason said. “We painted her kitchen cupboards and walls. We washed her windows and scrubbed floors. … We just kept asking what else we could do.”
Because most of Violet’s time is spent taking care of her autistic children, the group also spent time playing games and interacting with the other children.
During the group testimonies, Violet said, “You are all angels. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being a witness to my children and for making my house into a beautiful home. You’ve brought the kingdom of God here without even saying a word.”
Similar words of humble gratitude were expressed as more testimonies were shared. Endelicato said, “When you hear the residents talking about their experiences of this week, it really clarifies what Catholic Heart Workcamp is.”
The mission of the camp is two-fold: to share the love of Jesus through serving others and to foster the spiritual growth of each participant through the sacraments, Catholic faith-sharing, and prayer.
“Prayer and the sacraments are at the heart of the camp,” Rodrigue said.
While many other Christian camps dedicated to service can be found throughout the country, this camp features elements that are uniquely Catholic. Every morning begins with Mass, and there are also designated times throughout the week for the rosary, reconciliation and eucharistic adoration.
“This is a service-based camp, but it is first and foremost a Christ-centered camp,” Father Norman Fischer, camp chaplain, said.
The director of this year’s camp, Lauren Kowalik, said, “We hope the campers make that connection between their service and our faith. We hope they understand why it’s so important.”
Ty Taylor, a 19 year-old veteran camper, acknowledged that this camp had been spiritually beneficial.
“Workcamp is an awesome, faith-filled, fun experience,” he said. “Here you can understand why you need to serve. You get thrown right into a situation where you really need to be the hands and feet of Christ and give everything you have to help other people. We don’t always get to see that in everyday life.”
Catholic Heart Workcamp is designed to build servant hearts in its participants for more than just a week; it operates in hopes of giving teens the encouragement and support necessary to serve for a lifetime.
“After camp ends, you’re still living to give,” Endelicato said.
Collectively, the campers, adults and staff of this year’s work camp have been more than happy to give back to the city of New Orleans.
“The people here are so appreciative,” Mason said. “There is such a welcoming spirit in this city.”
At the end of Thursday night’s program, Rodrigue thanked the workers and quoted Blessed Mother Teresa: “We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
Rachel Varisco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.