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WorkCamp runs in the family

First slide

If you ask the average teen what they are looking forward to this summer, chances are they will not say, "I want to do free manual labor during the hottest part of the summer and, oh yes, I definitely want to get up every day at 6 a.m. to go to Mass." Amazingly, this is the response from hundreds of teens in the Arlington Diocese every year, especially from members of the Clemente family.

"The biggest concern with an early summer injury is not being able to go to WorkCamp," said Mercy Clemente, a 21-year-old junior at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. "I have never regretted going," said her sister Mariana, 23, who turned down a senior beach trip for WorkCamp.

The family of 11, with nine kids ranging from 12 to 29, has been involved with WorkCamp for the past 20 years with no plans to quit. Their enthusiasm grows each year as they see the positive impact it has on youths. The family fondly remembers getting "roped" into WorkCamp for the first time when they were parishioners of St. William of York Church in Stafford. Tim Clemente, a former FBI agent, volunteered as a contractor in 1996 before his kids were old enough to attend. His son Josh, a senior design engineer in Los Angeles, remembers accompanying his dad to some of the sites. Josh attended WorkCamp four times and then returned in college as a volunteer contractor.

"I really enjoyed building things when I was young, so getting to WorkCamp was a great party for me," said Josh. "Just getting a chance to hang out with people my age and build things that would help (improve) people's lives. … It is the best part of the year."

Most of the Clemente children have attended three or four years with a few exceptions. Rodney, 20, a Marine, was adopted by the Clemente family when he was 16. He was not Catholic at the time and had no interest in the event despite what his siblings said about it. He was finally "strongly encouraged" by his mom, Karen, to go and he fundraised with his siblings to earn the money to do it.

"We did not give them the money to go," said Karen, who has organized Work Camp fundraisers for the past 15 years.

The beginning of WorkCamp was rough for Rodney.

"We got up really early, and I was not expecting to get up that early during the summer. … I was thinking, 'Why am I here?'" Gradually, he began to see the other teens pushing through the negativity to make the best of the situation.

"Once you actually got to the work site and you talk to the residents, and you are spending your time and energy helping them out, and the residents give you the positive feedback, you feed off that," said Rodney. "It is after you step outside of your comfort zone and do something that is uncomfortable that I discovered why I should have listened to my family. In retrospect, if I had known what the experience was going to be before I would have gladly gone."

According to his sister Kateri, 19, what really made a difference at WorkCamp was that everyone was in the same mindset. "We were all a little uncomfortable, … we had heard great stories from those who had gone before us, but at the same time it is hot summer; it is a full week. But it was so easy to make friends. Everyone was welcoming and you could talk to anyone." Years later many of them still keep in touch with WorkCampers they met on their first day of camp.

"It is hard to find a kid sitting by himself," said Tim Jr., 17, "And if you do, you will have that kid with a group of 10 people and he won't leave those 10 people for the rest of the week." The experience changes many of the kids' perspectives on what's important. They become less materialistic and instead of sneaking into the bathrooms early to apply makeup before Mass, they focus on being themselves and helping others.

Interacting with the people they are helping also can be a life-changing experience for the groups and a good exercise in patience and respect.

"They are a little stern at the beginning of the week because they are embarrassed," said Tim Jr. "But by the end of the week they are a lifelong friend ... they feel welcomed."

One of the most touching moments is the last day during eucharistic adoration. Priests are available to hear confessions and campers are given the opportunity to participate in a living rosary. During the rosary, campers can voice an intention or talk about their experience at WorkCamp. Mercy and Kateri will never forget a girl who said she had been contemplating suicide before the end of the summer and that coming to WorkCamp had saved her life.

It puts your own suffering into perspective because you realize, "Wow, I have nothing to complain about," said Karen. "Some of these people are carrying these huge burdens and they have no one to share them (with). It really helps to see how blessed you are."

Many of the kids describe Mass at WorkCamp as unlike any Mass they have ever experienced.

"It's so upbeat and it's so happy, you are so engaged," said Tim Jr. "Everything the priest says has to do with your life." Kateri admits that after WorkCamp everyone is on "a bit of a Jesus high." Tim Jr. agreed saying, "You can't not be in your faith at WorkCamp. You will go, there and doubt your faith the first day … and then by the end of the week, you want to be a priest."

The kids have tried to encourage their friends to go, but many of them still have the wrong impression of WorkCamp. They say things like, "Why would you (pay) to work for free?" and "That sounds like a nightmare."

One of the things that stands out to Karen about the week is the large number of priests and religious involved in the event.

"It is fabulous to see all these religious people mixing with all these teenagers," said Karen. "It really brings to mind what we are supposed to be doing as a church internationally, how we can change things just by being an intentional community."

Buyers can be reached at abuyers@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016