By Dorothy LaMantia | Correspondent
While many of their peers were sleeping late, working a job or going to the beach, 46 high school students devoted a precious week of summer to prayer, the practice of their Catholic faith and social justice teaching through hands-on service to the poor.
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With air mattresses, sleeping bags and work clothes in tow, members of the youth groups of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, and St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor, and eight adult supervisors arrived Aug. 9 in St. Theresa Faith Formation Center, their home base as they collaborated for the third year of Mission: Jersey.
Since 2005, the two youth groups worked together for similar service projects, such as Good Works, a faith-based program based in Pennsylvania. When Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in their own neighborhoods, youth ministers, Dan Waddington of St. Barnabas and Nicole Disio of St. Theresa, created a service program benefitting local storm survivors and Mission: Jersey was born.
“We decided that we needed to help our own,” said Waddington. “Sandy came along and it didn’t make sense to go elsewhere for a mission experience. God brought it to us in the storm, and we were serving our own parishioners who were displaced. We created our own mission experience modeled after programs like Good Works but costing less.”
Starting each day with the celebration of Mass by Father K. Michael Lambeth, pastor of St. Theresa Parish, students were split into four crews and transported to four worksites: a house rebuilt after Sandy in Lavallette; Atlantic City Rescue Mission Thrift Shop, Atlantic City; Community Food Bank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, in Egg Harbor Township, and Goshen Farm, which supplies fresh produce to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Heading to different sites each day, all groups experienced all worksites where the tasks, ranging from hanging curtains for an ailing homeowner to weeding and harvesting at the farm, provided lessons and opportunities to live the Corporal Works of Mercy.
At day’s end they freshened up at Ocean County College or Pinelands Middle School, where they showered before returning to St. Theresa for dinner, prayer, reflection and fun.
As one group sorted through clothing donations at the thrift store, they shared their insights.
“We learned we’re more efficient by working together,” said Alicia Salvatoriello of St. Barnabas. “This is so rewarding. We’re just sorting through jackets, but one will go to someone who needs it this winter.”
Liz Serviss of St. Theresa Parish reflected, “You realize how blessed you are. When I do things for the unfortunate, I see how fortunate I am. It is so important for people to get what they need…it’s important to work for others that need you.”
Quinton Hamboy from Tuckerton commented, “It’s like taking a week’s vacation from my own life to help to others. I love doing this! It feels good to help people who don’t have the means to work for themselves.”
While some participants did not know some of their teammates at first, by Tuesday, barriers were coming down and friendships blossomed. “It gets better and better each day,” said Joe Mancini from St. Theresa Parish. “It was awkward at first. I’m an introvert and didn’t know many of the others, but as we started to work together, we learned we have common ground.”
While organizing a closet, Tricia Geiger and Rosa Spalliero from Bayville praised the program because “We hadn’t known each other well before, but now we’re becoming friends.”
Not only did they make new friends, they recognize the face of God in those companions. Each evening they pondered, Where have I seen God today?
“In our adult leaders,” said Salvatoriello. “They’re putting hard work into this. They have left their jobs for a week to do this and to be with us.”
Pointing to the food donations filling the food bank’s warehouse, Zacorra Gonzalez of Bayville said, “In all the people who see the needs of the community, then donate time and food here. They make other people’s needs important. That’s pretty God-like to me.”
“If you think about it,” said Joe, “we are doing what Jesus would do.”