Bless the mess; Local teens and young adults get dirty on mission trip while helping others

Photo courtesy of Catholic Heart Workcamp
John Struman (left) of Dearborn and Emma Woods of Dearborn Heights help repair a home during a Catholic Heart Work Camp in two weeks ago in Oil City, Penn.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Amid nature’s beauty and poverty’s mess, local teens and adults got dirty helping clean and repair
homes for the poor during a recent mission trip to Oil City, Pa.

Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Dearborn organizes
groups of volunteers to attend Catholic Heart Workcamps every summer at different locations across the country.

CHWC provides ways for church groups to put their faith in action while working with the neglected and marginalized of society.

The experience also fosters faith by including daily worship opportunities in addition to social service.

This summer, youth ministry leader Julie Wieleba-Milkie took 13 teens, six young adults and six parent chaperones, from more than six neighboring cities
and parishes, to the impoverished post-petroleum boom region to serve others while strengthening and putting their faith in action.

By the 1990s, Oil City had lost major oil company headquarters through relocation, leaving one-fifth of the population currently living below the poverty level.

While revitalization efforts include an effort to attract working artists and new businesses to the area, median family income is below $30,000 a year.

Wieleba-Milkie said that because the metropolitan Detroit area also has a great need for volunteers to help the poor, Sacred Heart’s youth group tries to help in their own community throughout the year.

“It’s not like we’re just going out to further away places, and at home doesn’t matter,” she said. “We are involved in that to a certain extent prior to going out.”
Wieleba-Milkie said they chose the Oil City experience because it was a five-hour drive from Dearborn, it was available in mid-July, and it was a next level camp.

“A next level camp has a higher level of spirituality that is provided to the participants, so that means there is Mass every day and a gathering of all the participants with their parish groups every evening,” she said.

The Sacred Heart group worked with 244 other CHWC volunteers from across the country while volunteering in Oil City by working on about 50 homes.

They worked July 7 to 10 during the day, inside and out, painting and repairing.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary Center, an affiliate of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Erie, which operate a food pantry and thrift shop in Oil City, helped CHWC identify residents in need of help.

After working during the day, volunteers spent evenings doing spiritually focused worship and faith-building activities, and at night, they slept on air mattresses in a local high school without air conditioning.

Wieleba-Milkie said it is heart-warming to see the positive impact the mission trip has on the teens who attend.

She said teens thank her for encouraging them to attend the work camp, and for the overall opportunity to serve and grow.

“One teen even said she had a better appreciation for what she has at home because she had been on this,” she said. “And that’s true.

As a teenager, it’s very easy to take everything
that you have at home for granted. It really does give them an eye-opening experience, and then to be able to make somebody else’s life just a little bit better because of their helping.”

Wieleba-Milkie said the recipients were very appreciative of the work done for them.

She said the mission trips also encourage teens and young adults to develop lifetime habits of service to others.

Haley Divis, 16, of Dearborn, a second-time mission trip participant, helped paint a porch for an elderly woman, and later an older man’s garage door.

She said the reactions of those they helped touched her when they came and spoke to the volunteers at the end of the week.

“Some of the residents stood up and talked for a bit, and they were crying,” Divis said. “I realized that these people appreciate everything that we have done for the past week, and just by coming that night they were expressing their utmost gratitude.”

Divis said she likes the other volunteers she meets when on a mission trip, and has made many new friends that way.

Edward Thompson, 14, of Detroit, a first-time mission trip participant, said he painted a bathroom, cleaned windows, rebuilt stairs, and repainted a porch for a grateful senior.

He said he would encourage other teens to attend a mission trip.

“I know that some kids think that it is all service, but it isn’t,” Thompson said. “You still get plenty of time to make friends and hang out. Even the service is fun. I probably made the most friends while doing the service.”

Anne Holmes, 14, of Dearborn, a second-time mission trip participant, said she helped clean up an elderly priest’s residence, did gardening for an elderly couple, and painted a garage and shed for another older couple.

She said when a door-to-door saleswoman saw the work the volunteers were doing, the woman said it gave her hope for the future.

Holmes said she will encourage other teens to go on a future mission trip.

“It’s great to help people out and to make new friends,” she said. “I want to go on as many mission trips as I am able to.”

Emerson Merem of Canton Township, a first-time participant, said the gratefulness of those they helped touched her.

“It really showed that the little things we did, the one week we were there, changed their lives,” she said. “That is what made it all worth it.”

She said she grew spiritually from her mission trip experience.

“Even though the days were long, the living conditions not ideal, and we had to put in a lot of hard work, this was one of the best experiences of my life,” Merem said. “I would put up with it all over again just to go change others’ lives.”