Labor of love

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In a day and age where technology plays a vital role in everyday life, youths from across the Arlington Diocese traded their cellphones for hammers to serve the needy in Shenandoah County during WorkCamp June 20-26.

Sponsored by the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry, the annual event typically draws hundreds of Northern Virginia youths and adult volunteers that work together to make homes safer and more comfortable for local residents while encouraging participants to deepen their relationships with God.

Kevin Bohli, director of the Office of Youth Ministry, explained that the program is meant to serve as an "experience of joy" that inspires young people to "live a life connected to serving Christ through their Catholic faith."

The program has seen steady growth over the past 29 years with this year's WorkCamp drawing more than 800 teens, a record number. According to Darren Bryant, the diocesan WorkCamp coordinator, the teens worked at 136 job sites to complete more than 160 projects with the help of 500 adult leaders, contractors and volunteers representing 41 parishes.

Throughout the hectic week, the teens spent time rebuilding wheelchair ramps, replacing roofs and windows, and repairing plumbing systems. Their hard labor was paired with opportunities for faith formation, including Mass celebrated by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and social and spiritual activities in the evenings.

Amy Hilla, a rising junior at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington and parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, said she was deeply impacted by her first experience at WorkCamp in 2014 because it helped open her eyes to new forms of worship and service.

"I had never gone to adoration before I attended WorkCamp last year, and it helped me feel the real presence of Christ in ways that I had never experienced before," said Hilla. "By participating in that while being surrounded by so many other Catholics who were my age and who wanted to serve others, I realized this is a unique experience."

Recognizing the impact that WorkCamp has for local residents as well as the participants, Hilla decided to return for a second year and continued to see her faith grow with the help of her fellow crew members.

"Our crew has a very strong bond because we feel comfortable enough to talk to one another about the things that we are struggling with in our faith," said Hilla. "We are all facing the same issues, and I know I can even talk to them about the downfalls and challenges I face with my faith. We have really bonded over the fact that none of us is perfect and we're all just trying to get closer to God in our own way."

Hilla is not the only teen whose life has been transformed by the WorkCamp experience. Leigh Beals, a rising junior at Bishop Ireton High School and parishioner of St. Louis Church, both in Alexandria, returned to camp this year hoping to continue to strengthen her faith.

"I really loved attending daily Mass every day while I was here, and after returning home, I did my best to continue the tradition," said Beals. "I felt called to spend more time with Christ."

Beals said she was affected by the experience of serving the impoverished residents of Shenandoah County.

"After seeing the overwhelming love that can come out of service here, I think I am going to go on a mission trip to Thailand with my family to help children in need living in orphanages there," said Beals. "I just feel it's so amazing to help others and demonstrate our love for each other and for God through service."

Although Anne-Marie Theriot, a first-time adult volunteer and parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Fredericksburg, was not initially planning on participating in WorkCamp this year, she said she was so glad the Lord gave her the opportunity to work with diocesan teens this summer.

"In April, I heard from our parish's youth minister that five girls would not be able to attend this year's program if another female adult volunteer didn't step up and accompany them," said Theriot. "After hearing that kids who wanted to serve those in need might not be able to attend, I stepped up, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but I am so glad that I did. It's been so incredibly worth it."

Theriot is one of many adult volunteers who made a personal connection with the members of her crew. Referred to as ''Mom'' by the six teens with whom she worked, Theriot said she enjoyed serving others and watching the youths recognize the importance of their construction projects.

"We've spent so much time together in between working on-site, taking water and lunch breaks and even traveling together in the car, and there is a visible change that occurs within these teens," said Theriot. "They might still goof off for a few minutes to release some steam, but then just listening to their conversations, you can see that they are totally focused on what we're here to do, why we're here to do it, who's gonna benefit from it and what that benefit really looks like."

After three years of serving at WorkCamp, Bridget Starrs, a home-schooled rising senior and parishioner of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, looked back at her experience.

"Everyone is always so joyful when they wake up in the morning because we all know we are surrounded by other young Catholics who chose to participate in an intentional Christian community service program," said Starrs. "I just really love being a part of a community that aims to serve others and help young people develop their faith. It's really like what the apostles did."

Willis can be reached at jwillis@catholicherald.com.

To purchase photos from WorkCamp 2015 click here .

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015