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Hands-on faith at WorkCamp

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Sturdy walls. Front porch steps. A bathroom sink. A home provides the backdrop to life — the structure that quietly keeps its inhabitants safe and dry, cool or warm. It’s easy to forget all the comforts a house provides, until it is gone. 

Some 850 teens from around the Diocese of Arlington traded the familiar surroundings of their own homes for a classroom floor, a communal bathroom and a school cafeteria. From their home base at King George High School, half an hour east of Fredericksburg, they traveled out to 110 homes that needed a little fixing up June 24-28. The annual WorkCamp is run by the Office of Youth, Campus and Young Adult Ministries and dozens of volunteers.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge was scheduled to attend WorkCamp Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, celebrating Mass for the teens and adult volunteers. 

On Monday, WorkCamp crews consisting of a handful of teens, an adult leader or two and a contractor began fixing roofs, installing windows, painting and otherwise improving homes. During lunch, they took time to prayerfully reflect on their work and chat with the home’s residents. In the late afternoon, they packed up equipment, drove back to the high school and hit the showers. After dinner, they played games, sang praise songs and listened to speaker Steve Angrisano share about his faith. In the morning, they attended Mass, ate breakfast and started all over again.

It was resident Cynthia Byrd’s second experience with WorkCamp. Two years ago she watched as a crew built wooden steps leading to her front and back door. Byrd remembers the exact day 12 years ago that she moved into her King George mobile home. On July 16 the formerly homeless woman bought her trailer for $1 from her brother and started to create a home. Since then, she’s helped raise her six grandchildren in the simple brown trailer decorated with the sign “Home Sweet Home.”

“We had a ball out here,” said Byrd of her time with WorkCampers two years ago. “I used to go out there and pray with them. When they ate lunch behind my trailer, I was right there, asking questions about God. The young girls were out here working hard. They were just happy, spirited people.”

This year, the crew is adding new skirting to her trailer that will better insulate the building. Byrd was out much of the day sitting on a nearby picnic table, talking with the teens and entertaining her neighbors, many of whom also had crews working on their homes. Her six grandchildren played outside. WorkCampers sang “Happy Birthday” to the youngest, Jerimiah, who turned 3 that day. 

“I’m so grateful and so blessed for what you all are doing for me,” said Byrd. “I’m a single lady on a fixed income, $260 a month, and I’m making it through. Do you know why I’m making it?” Byrd pointed to the sky. “He keeps on blessing me. That’s all I got to say.” 

Meanwhile, two crews cut wood planks and drilled them into the frame of a wheelchair ramp at the home of the Bill and Cheryl Duke, a two-story white house built at least 120 years ago in Caroline County. The home they’ve lived in together for 51 years was Bill’s childhood home and the place they raised their two children. Cheryl, who has degenerative arthritis, had been worried her motorized scooter wheels would get caught in the expanding holes of the wheelchair ramp. Her husband and his cousin had repaired the ramp in the past but aren’t able to this time. 

“(Bill and I are) both almost 75 and he’s had two rounds of life-threatening pulmonary embolisms in the past three years,” said Cheryl. “Bill has always been a caregiver. He was an only child and he took care of his mother for 25 years. This is why this is such a blessing to get this done because Bill is not physically capable of doing it anymore.”

Cheryl and Bill are still caretakers of their adult son, Paul, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. For several years, he’s been dependent on a ventilator and a feeding tube. But before that, Paul and his family traveled around the country advocating for people with disabilities. Though these days he’s mostly bedbound, Cheryl hopes they can use the new ramp to bring Paul outdoors now and then. 

“I think it's so unselfish of these young people,” she said. “It's summer vacation and they're here doing something for someone they don’t even know. This is just such a blessing.”

Molly Hoyle,16, a parishioner of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling, drills into a wheelchair ramp.

ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

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Contractor Benjamin Paczak’s first time at WorkCamp was in 2008 when, as a camper, he and his crew fixed up a men’s homeless shelter. In 2016, the parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington came back as an adult volunteer and has volunteered ever since. Paczak says he most enjoys leading the teens to God.

During adoration one night, Paczak listened as the high schoolers told their personal, heartfelt rosary intentions to hundreds of their peers while he directed the confession line. “As soon as the line was over, I was able to kneel down with everybody else and just pour myself out. I was almost in tears with the whole experience,” he said. “It’s very touching.”

RJ Peters, a parishioner of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg, is also a repeat WorkCamper. The 18-year-old’s first project was building a wheelchair ramp for an elderly man. She met not only him but much of his family. “My resident’s son and his kids came, and the son helped us a lot,” said Peters. “Then during lunch, we would play soccer with his kids. We got to see how much it impacted not just the resident but their whole family and everybody around them.”

Before attending WorkCamp, her main exposure to Catholicism was the hourlong religious education classes she attended before her first Communion and confirmation. “My family didn't go to Mass a whole lot. We were Christmas and Easter Catholics,” said Peters. 

WorkCamp introduced to her other teens who were passionate about their faith, and showed her the powerful ways Catholics could serve their communities and evangelize. After getting her driver’s license, she started driving herself to Sunday Mass. 

Peters feels WorkCamp is a hands-on way to live out her faith. “A lot of the time if you’re praying, even though deep inside you know it’s working, sometimes it's really easy to get discouraged if you don’t see an immediate response,” she said. “So it’s really rewarding to go through the week and have a tangible product — to see what work you’ve done and how God has worked through you.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

@ZoeyMaraistACH