In 2016, West Virginia did not expect to be rocked by a life-changing flood. As two rivers rose and met because of strong and long rains, the state suffered severe damage. The town of Clendenin faced the worst of this natural disaster. For the past four years, Our Lady of the Lake‘s Youth Ministry has taken an eight-hour car ride to help rebuild the fractured towns of West Virginia. They worked mainly in Clendenin, but each year one or two groups will work on a house outside of the town.
Last week, the Youth Ministry packed up their vans and headed to their beloved town, Clendenin, to finish what they started in 2017. Gina Butler and Jeanette Mackesy lead the Youth Ministry and orchestrated this entire trip. The group works with Next Step Ministry, a Christian service project program that gives the team a place to stay and practice their faith, and the materials they need to rebuild Clendenin. Verona brings around 30 high schoolers along with adult members of the ministry and local construction workers.
This year, OLL Youth Ministry broke into four crews made up of eight to 10 high schoolers, a Next Step Leader, an adult from the church, and sometimes a construction worker. These four crews each had their own site: One worked on a roof and porch outside of Clendenin, another did landscaping and house cleaning at an elderly couple’s home, a third did masonry work at a Little League field, and the fourth did interior and exterior work on a bathhouse at the field. There was also work done at a community center and the sidewalk around the Little League field by other Next Step crews. The projects are chosen based on not only on who needs the most help, but what can be done to help the community as a whole. Last year’s OLL worksites were all community projects; no homes were worked on.
The OLL Youth Ministry is able to see the part it plays in bringing the town together because at the end of each trip there is a community night at the Little League field. Last year, there was a baseball game and bouncy castles for the younger kids. This year, the Verona kids were able to hang out and play games with the other groups working with Next Step and kids of Clendenin.
What happens on these work sites is why the kids keep coming back each year. Each crew becomes a family. The teens bond with each other along with the adults, creating an environment that cannot be beat. This environment is one of the most important aspects of the trip. Jessica Waldron, an incoming junior at Verona High School, spent her first mission trip working on the house owned by an elderly couple, Eleanor and Bob Bird. “By the end of the week we grew so close to the home owners, Eleanor and Bob, that we did not want to leave and they did not was us to either,” Waldron says. “I realized that it is not always the physical work that helps people, it is making connections with them and doing the little things to help.”
Saying goodbye to the Birds had more than one Verona teen in tears–and Eleanor too. These connections made on the worksites are one of the things that make these trips so special. “The relationships made this year, the group of kids and adults, and the Bird family really made my last mission trip so special,” says Brendan Powell, an incoming freshman at Sacred Heart University.
Along with these relationships are the experiences the Verona teens get. Half of the Verona high schoolers spent all of their four days on a roof installing tin roofing while other kids may have been using power tools daily. Caitie Kenneally, an upcoming sophomore at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was given the opportunity to come on the mission trip again even though she is in college. Kenneally has worked on a roof in West Virginia for the past two years and this year worked alongside Barney Thomas, a construction worker who comes to West Virginia with Verona.
“I have been lucky enough to be on the roofing crew the last three years,” Kenneally says. “Being an Architecture student, I love the hands on construction aspect of the trip. Most kids my age do not get the unique opportunity to work on a full-scale real-life project. Working in real life rather than just on paper drawings has been helpful even in my first year of college.”
On the trip the teens are able to do just about everything themselves, and there are few limits. Dylan Ruggiero, a 2018 graduate of VHS and an incoming freshman at Ithaca College, talked about how he was able to use a power saw on a roof. Many of the teens that come on the trip have already been on it before, which gives them prior knowledge on how to work on specific parts of a house.
While this trip teaches the teens how to build a house, it also allows them to work on their faith and strengthen it. Before each meal everyone attending the trip, which was about 90 people, gather into a circle, hold hands, and pray for their day and meal. The kids were given the opportunity to lead prayer and for each meal a different person did it. During lunch time, which is eaten at the sites, the teens participate in devotionals. They read a different story each day given to them by Next Step and then discuss the effects of God on their lives.
“Lunch Devos was an important part of my day because it gave us a break during our work to reflect on what we were doing and discuss God,” says Kate Ashley, an incoming senior at VHS. “We would each take turns answering the questions and build off of the answers, giving me a lot to think about.” Next Step provided an outlet for these teens to express their faith and work on their religion.
The trip allows each individual to grow as a person and learn valuable life lessons. Living in Clendenin for a week puts life in perspective and shows the teens how different life can be only eight hours away. During one of the nightly worships, one of the Next Step leaders talked about joy and happiness, explaining how happiness can sometimes be fleeting but joys lasts. This mission trip puts a long lasting joy in each person’s heart.
These high schoolers also learn the true reward of helping others for no reason except to help. “The mission trip has shaped me into a better Catholic and person overall,” says Amber Reed, an incoming freshman at William Paterson University. “It has allowed me to want and feel the need to be the hands and feet of Christ and continue to do mission trips in the future.”