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OLL Youth Group Builds More Than Buildings In West Virginia

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Daniella Trujillo, Kate Ryan and the author, Julia DiGeronimo in Clendenin, W.V.

Most students dread the month of August. To them, it means the end of summer and the beginning of school. However, for the teens who are part of Our Lady of the Lake’s Youth Group, August means that it is time to journey back to their favorite place: West Virginia. For more than 20 years, the OLL Youth Group has been working with Next Step Ministries to help places in desperate need of help. This trip was the group’s fourth year helping Clendenin, West Virginia rebuild after a life-shattering flood that occurred in 2016.

There are many aspects to the trip that make these teens come back every year, myself included. It is hard to talk about the trip without smiling and wanting to cry at the same time. It is an experience that fills your heart with so much joy it is impossible to match it.

When Verona travels to West Virginia, Our Lady of the Lake is not the only church working with Next Step. This year there were three other churches staying with us: two from Illinois and one from Michigan. Each year, there are other teens working with us, but we usually do not interact with them much. However, this year was different. From the first night there was a spark between the Verona teens and other churches. Instantly friendships were formed that lasted throughout the entire week, something that usually does not happen.

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“One of the most unexpected parts of the trip was the relationships we all made,” says Stephanie Boyle, who will be a senior at Verona High School this fall. “I am amazed at how close we have all gotten over the span of just one week. On the very first night we were already playing games together as if we’ve known each other for years!”

Relationships are also created within the church. The 33 Verona students that OLL takes on the trip are friends, and they build on those friendships. Multiple times throughout the week, OLL leaders Gina Butler and Jeanette Mackesy were told by the other leaders that OLL’s kids interact more like siblings instead of friends. When I go on this trip it is almost as if I am traveling with 30 of my closest friends.

Emily Valone, Jessie Waldron, Paige Dennis, Maddie Leonard, Kiera Egan, Jenna Gabbe, Carolyn Wynd and Julia DiGeronimo

Having the opportunity to travel to West Virginia is something most people do not get to experience, nor is it something most people want to do. The teens of OLL know how lucky they are to be able to serve in West Virginia each year. It is a chance for them to live in a new environment completely different than theirs; a chance for them to explore a side of themselves they would not be able to find back home in Verona. When we are in West Virginia we are in our most happy and loving forms. Our struggles of Verona stay in Verona while we do whatever we can to help others.

As the week comes to an end and the Youth Group members have to go back home, they take multiple things with them– from a new sense of who they are and why they were put on this Earth, to new friendships that are stronger than most, and a happiness that cannot diminish. “This trip was not all about rebuilding, it’s about making unforgettable memories, and connecting with the people around you,” says Josh Vargas, a first timer on the mission trip who will be a junior at VHS this fall.

If you see an OLL youth group member anytime soon, make sure to ask them about the trip because you will be promised a recount of their best memories.

Teenagers in grades 9 through 12 can join the OLL Youth Group, which meets twice a month. In addition to the mission trip, the group participates in service activities such as a food drive for St. John’s soup kitchen in Newark and the “Souper” Bowl food collection, as well as an annual retreat. For more information, contact Gina Butler at 973-239-9312 or [email protected] You can also request to follow the OLL Youth Group on Instagram.

OLL’s Youth Group, with members of Next Step Ministries and students from an Illinois church.

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