For Esmerelda Bodon, 17, Mission: Jersey was a homecoming of sorts.

“Throughout all of lockdown, I felt kind of lost – I wasn’t able to do all the things I wanted to do, like Youth Group and go on retreats.  But now I have the chance to do things like this and I am trying to find myself again and be the person that I am supposed to be.”

The Youth Group leader, from Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton, reflected on her experience at the day of service, held Aug. 5 in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, where she joined other youth from her parish and surrounding areas.

“This feels amazing. Being here today makes me want to encourage more people to come to other retreats,” she offered.

Hosted by the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Mission: Jersey consisted of four individual daily retreat experiences hosted in each county of the Diocese. Earlier retreats were held in St. Mary of the Pines Parish, Manahawkin, July 27, St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, July 29, and Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, Aug. 3.

This year’s Mission: Jersey theme focused on “The Year of St. Joseph” and followed the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. During each gathering, the youth considered the role that St. Joseph played as foster father to Jesus and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After praying each decade of the Rosary, the young people heard about the different service organizations they assisted during their experience including: Blessing Bag Brigade, Child Care Resources of Monmouth County, Samaritan Hospice, Cathedral Kitchen, Camden, and The Outreach Program.

During the service portion of the retreat, the teens packed blessing bags filled with personal hygiene and items of comfort for homeless shelters; made blankets for patients in hospice care, and assembled packs of diapers for the Monmouth County Diaper Bank.  They also made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Cathedral Kitchen and put together meal packages of rice and beans.

Representatives from local diocesan agencies in Mercer County – Mount Carmel Guild of Trenton and Catholic Charities – were on hand to assist with the projects and share with the youth how their acts of kindness directly affect those locally in need. The Guild will be able to distribute the rice and beans meals to their clients who visit the Food Pantry, and Catholic Charities was the recipient of the blessing bags.

Being able to aid those in the local community resonated with Bodon.

“It’s great that this is going back to our community. Growing up I had a lot of friends that have had many problems and needed some help. I know how much extra help means to them and to other people in this area.”

Donald Muller, 14, is a parishioner of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, and was glad to have had the opportunity to participate in Mission: Jersey.

“This is so great and such a worthwhile cause and seeing how this benefits people firsthand has been awesome,” he said in between wrapping diapers for the diaper bank.

More than 160 youths participated in Mission: Jersey this summer, according to Dan Waddington, diocesan director of the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries. He explained, “We’re hoping to send them forth and that they realize they can do these projects after today in their own parishes and youth groups.”

And Samara Smith and Grace Marcille, both 15 and members of St. Gregory the Great Parish, are planning on doing just that when they enter high school as sophomores this year.

“We would like to do the diaper drive at the parish,” Marcille said.

“We could organize it at the parish and also collect at school,” Smith added.

Taylor Lopez, 18, also from Our Lady of the Angels, was thankful to have this opportunity to serve others during the pandemic.

“This was an opportunity for me to get close to God, to open my heart to God. I’ve always dreamed about helping the poor. And now, with days like this, I can.”