Service retreat inspires junior high students in Florida
By Bob Reddy

.- Learning that you can truly make a difference in the world is an eye-opening experience for anyone. For middle school-aged youths this can be a life-changing revelation.

Dana Hurson of Blessed Pope John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers said she realized that her hard work cleaning up yards and painting a house in south Fort Myers during the “Just 5 Days Retreat” had a significant impact on the homeowners.

“I saw the look in their faces; I saw them cry with joy for what we did. That really made me so proud,” said the 12-year-old.

By the end of the retreat, students left with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation in their lives, realizing that even through a small act of kindness and conversation they, too, can make a difference in the world.

“This was such a wonderful experience, I can’t wait to go out and volunteer again,” Dana said. “The joy we received from helping others is more than I ever dreamed possible.”

Middle school students gathered in mid-June at Bishop Verot High School for the “Just 5 Days Retreat” to gain new experiences and possibly have their lives changed.

Sponsored by the Center for Ministry Development along with the Youth Outreach of the Diocese of Venice, the retreat introduces the young people to the concept of doing service projects with the goal of hopefully seeing the face of God in others.

Each day was centered on prayer, which included learning Bible verses and songs. The goal was to learn about how a core part of Catholic teaching calls for all to do good for others. The reward for doing good, as the young students learned firsthand, is to grow closer to God and have a greater appreciation for the gifts each one has and the dignity of every human person.

Quinn Farrell of Blessed Pope John XXIII Parish said that the interaction he had with adults with developmental disabilities at the Freida B. Smith “Special Populations” Center in Cape Coral really impacted him on a personal and spiritual level.

“I began to relate to the people with disabilities as I never thought I could,” Quinn, who will be going to Bishop Verot High School in the fall, admitted. “All of us learned that not everyone is as fortunate as we are, and realized that talking and being there makes a real difference. We saw the face of God in everyone we met. It was very powerful.”

Ann Marie Eckert of the Center for Ministry Development helped facilitate the retreat that included service hours, prayer, reflection and frank discussions.

“This is unique for middle school students who are often too old for child’s game and too young for more serious discussions,” Eckert said. “We try to find the right balance to keep their attention and motivate them to get involved and realize they can make a difference.”

Each day the group gathered together for breakfast and prepared for their workdays. Divided into three groups, the students went out to different locations.

One project included a housing rehab project in south Fort Myers near San Jose Mission. There the young people cleaned out the overgrowth of weeds and trash around several houses and then painted the exterior of one house and the interior of another. In their short time, they cleared out more than 100 bags of trash and yard waste.

The Freida B. Smith “Special Populations” Center is a facility that offers a variety of programs for adults and children with developmental disabilities. The mission of Special Populations is to promote independence through exposure, education and experience in a safe, caring environment. The students spent time interacting and tutoring the adult clients, including teaching them to dance, clean their garden and porch areas, and painted two benches.

Sara Sansone, program director of Special Populations, said students on the retreat had impressed her and the adult clients.

“You came here not knowing what to expect and you took the time to get to know people and did not treat them any differently, so now you are leaving here with many new friends and a new perspective on people with disabilities,” she said.

Gabriella Miller, who is a student at St. Francis Xavier School in Fort Myers, said she had fun getting to know the adults and was interested in returning to volunteer again. “I really have a better understanding,” she said.

A group of teens from Jacksonville worked at the Community Cooperative Ministries Inc. soup kitchen in Fort Myers, preparing and serving food to more than 100 people each day.

Throughout the week the teens were brought back to Bishop Verot High School each evening to share their daily experiences and to learn about the benefits of service.

An underlying theme of the week was to learn about the communion of saints and to realize each saint has a different story to tell. The students also learned that there are people living amongst us that have many of the traits of a saint whether they are a person with developmental disabilities, a homeless mother, a volunteer or a middle school student.

By the end of the week, exhausted from hard work and excited about their new experiences, the middle school students were changed.

“This is really having an impact on them,” said Jim Jenkins, youth director at St. Cecilia Parish in Fort Myers. “I am impressed with how they have matured and learned to appreciate their world in just a few short days.”

Printed with permission from the Florida Catholic.

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