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Middle schoolers harvest corn for needy during faith-filled ‘boot camp’

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Their day began and ended with mandatory push-ups and sit-ups. It was boot camp, after all — Boot Camp for Aspiring Saints. But instead of navigating obstacle courses, the more than 100 middle schoolers from Holy Spirit Church in Annandale explored new places and learned about their faith throughout the weeklong camp. 

“We try to visit religious (men and women), have some fun and do a corporal or spiritual work of mercy. Those are our three main criteria for any given day,” said Lambie Renner, director of parish activities and youth ministry. Renner, along with Father John M. Donahue, pastor, and other staff and volunteers have run the boot camp for 15 years.

Monday’s journey took the campers to Old Town Alexandria, where they attended Mass at St. Joseph Church, visited Catholic Charities’ Christ House and met the Daughters of St. Paul at their bookstore. Two days later, they went to Mass at St. Peter Church in Harper’s Ferry and heard a “Sermon on the Mount” from Father Donahue while eating goldfish crackers and gazing at the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers from atop Jefferson’s Rock.  

Tuesday’s adventure brought them to the Northern Neck of Virginia, where they harvested acres of corn to stock food pantries. Half the group went to Chandler Farms in Montross; the other half to Parker Farms in Colonial Beach July 16.

Butterflies and bees buzzed around the children as they plodded through the fields, inspected the ears and threw sweet corn into bags on their backs. Trucks from the pantries — Catholic Charities’ St. Lucy Project and Healthy Harvest Food Bank — were there to collect the bounty.

For the past five years, Ferdie Chandler has set aside two to three of his 375 acres of land to grow corn for the needy. His farm has been in his family since 1841 and produces corn, wheat, soybean and timber. “I think it serves a big need for a lot of people,” he said of the vegetables. “I think it’s really important to get fresh produce.”

Chandler also liked seeing the campers run around in the summer sun. “For so many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a thing like this,” he said. “It helps to give kids a little knowledge of where their food comes from — it doesn't just come off a grocery store shelf.”

It wasn’t easy, but Lucas Fleck was glad he could harvest corn for a second year at boot camp. “I really liked the feeling of helping out,” said the 12-year-old. “When things got tough in the field last year and this year, I just thought to myself, finish this. Don’t quit now. If you quit now, some little boy or girl won’t have dinner.”

In the afternoon, the campers headed to Fredericksburg to attend Mass celebrated by Father Donahue at the Catholic chapel at the University of Mary Washington. The day ended with a dip in the Rappahannock River and a trip to Wawa for snacks. 

Camper Noelle Garcia, 11, enjoyed the lineup of activities. “We help people by picking corn, then we’re going to have Mass, which is amazing, and then we're going to go swimming,” she said. “This is my first year here, but so far it is so amazing. This is like the best week of the summer.”

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019