Teens flex physical and spiritual muscles at Work Camp

Teens fasten a deck board to the joists of a new deck they constructed for a resident in Williamsburg, June 26, 2024. (Photo/Lily Nguyen Dunkle)

The sounds of saws, drills, and hammers could be heard up and down the streets in quiet Williamsburg neighborhoods the last week in June. About 100 teenagers sacrificed seven days of their summer breaks, flexing their physical and spiritual muscles at the diocesan Work Camp June 22-28.

Work Camp is a whirlwind week – the teens have one day of safety training and tool orientation before they hit their work sites for the week. The campers are divided into work crews and learn quickly how to work as a team with people they likely just met. They have four full workdays to complete the project.

“Work Camp is faith in action,” said Bishop Barry C. Knestout, after visiting the teens at the work sites on Tuesday, June 25.

“Unlike many works of faith, which have primarily a spiritual effect, their service is a practical expression of love for their neighbor – and flows from their faith and love for God,” said the bishop.

Teens learn some drywall basics on Sunday, June 23, 2024, before tackling a drywall project at their work site for Work Camp. (Photo/Lily Nguyen Dunkle)

In all, nearly 200 people from more than 20 parishes gathered for the annual camp, organized by the diocesan Office for Evangelization. In addition to the office’s staff and the teen participants, dozens of adults helped as chaperones, contractors, and volunteers. Youth ministers, college campus ministers, priests, and seminarians also lent a helping hand.

The mission work is one part of the camp. While the name is focused on the “work” portion of the week, the cornerstone of the camp is the spiritual strengthening it offers for everyone involved.

Each day began with Mass at “home base,” which was set up at Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News. Lunch at the work sites included time for Scripture readings, small group discussions, and praying a decade of the rosary. At the end of each workday, crews returned to home base for more faith-based activities. They ended each day with time for prayer and reflection with their parish group.

“I like [Work Camp] because it’s retreat style, but then you’re also immediately going out [to serve],” said MJ von Spakovsky, a teen from Holy Spirit, Christiansburg. This was his third time at Work Camp.

“I can’t do this anywhere else,” he added. “I don’t have the opportunity to go somewhere for a whole week and help out people I don’t even know.”

Seminarian Neal McCaffrey was enthusiastic about his first time helping at Work Camp. He watched the teens grow in faith and in relationship with one another as they worked together during the day, then participated in praise and worship, as well as Eucharistic adoration, at night. “I thought that was really beautiful, to see their collective praise,” McCaffrey said.

Six out of the seven days of camp fell on blazing hot days with temperatures over 90 degrees.

“It was hot. It was humid. I didn’t hear one complaint,” said Brandie Weiler, executive director of Housing Partnerships, Inc. She was one of many who praised the teens for their joyful, hardworking attitudes.

Trevor Provencher, a teen from All Saints, Floyd, learns how to work with drywall during an orientation class for Work Camp on June 23, 2024. (Photo/Lily Nguyen Dunkle)

Unspoken need in Williamsburg

The Office for Evangelization (OFE) teamed with Housing Partnerships, Inc. for the second year in a row. The non-profit serves the Williamsburg area by repairing homes for low-income and disabled residents, and helped OFE identify residents in need of help.

“We come in and do this for one week,” said Andrew Waring, director of OFE. “They do this all year long.”

The need exists year-round, said Weiler. She explained that one week of Work Camp has a ripple effect in the community. Seeing members of the diocesan faithful hard at work “opens doors” because curious residents come out to see what campers are doing.

Weiler said many people do not know how Housing Partnerships serves the community and can help turn homes into safe, comfortable places to live. Work Camp introduces the community to the services of Housing Partnerships.

This year, there were 12 work sites, primarily in two neighborhoods – Highland Park and York Terrace – as well as one home in Springfield Terrace.

Campers worked on an impressive number of projects; they built a deck, built a wheelchair ramp, repaired window trim, installed laminate floors, rebuilt entryway steps and handrails, installed several exterior doors, and reframed a wall and ceiling.

The residents were invited to a dinner Thursday night at home base, where they gratefully shared how the teens inspired them with their kindness.

“What a blessing it has been this week to have you all here at my home,” Naomi Terrell said as she stood up in front of everyone. The teens laid new flooring, replaced her cabinetry, extended her front landing and built new steps at Terrell’s home in York Terrace. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart!”

“I’m really overwhelmed by all that you’ve done,” said Susan Craft, another homeowner in York Terrace. She got choked up as she told her work crew, “You all are wonderful. I love you.”

Her home was the largest work site, with three work crews joining forces to tear down an old deck and build a new one.

Jack Crawford, a teen from St. Mary’s, Richmond, was part of one of those crews. “Susan was so kind. She was so grateful and gave us cookies. She even made us gifts, and she didn’t have to do that,” he said.

The teens were grateful, as well. Kate McCloskey, a teen from St. Gregory the Great, Virginia Beach, said, “We don’t really know what people are going through – and you never know how much you have until you see other people who are struggling – so be thankful for everything.”

This was seminarian Jack Domark’s first time helping out at Work Camp. He said it “gives a good perspective of the different communities that people live in and the work that the contractors put in – that’s their daily labor, that’s hard work that they allowed us to share in.”

“For some of them, that’s their daily lives and their situation,” Domark added, “so it broadens perspective and compassion for people.”

Bishop Barry C. Knestout blesses the teens at one Work Camp site on June 25, 2024. (Photo/Lily Nguyen Dunkle)

‘Boost’ from the bishop

Bishop Knestout and his vicar general, Father Michael Boehling, drove down from Richmond on Tuesday to tour some of the work sites.

“I wanted to be present, not only to encourage our youth in this Christian work, but also because it revives my own faith,” said Bishop Knestout.

Many of the teens briefly paused to shake hands with the bishop and answer his questions about their handiwork.

“Wow, you have a bishop who cares about you. Not all dioceses have that,” Erin Maguire-Metrey, the youth minister at St. Ann, Ashland, told a teen after they posed for photos with Bishop Knestout.

Eli Uy, a teen from St. Ann, said, “It’s real special [that the bishop came to our site]. The resident is really appreciative, but the bishop is also saying, ‘thank you for your hard work.’”

“It was incredible to see him,” said Xavier Rackliffe, a teen from St. Mary’s, Richmond. “I’ve never met him before.”

Daniel Christian, also from St. Mary’s, added, “It feels really special that he took his time to visit our site – it gave me a boost.”

Bishop Knestout said he mainly wanted to thank the teens for furthering the mission of the Church. “I am grateful for their sacrifice, enduring the heat and discomfort of physical labor to repair homes, making them more comfortable and accessible. Thank you for this expression of faith and charity!”

‘Complete my joy’

The keynote speaker for this year’s camp was Paul Albert, the director of missions for Life Teen, a Catholic youth ministry organization. Albert, who has spoken at national and international events, took the stage each day. He also visited the work sites during the day.

The theme for Work Camp was “Complete My Joy,” based on Philippians 2:2: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”

Albert weaved the theme each night through the Joyful Mysteries, telling the teens to trust in God as Our Lady and St. Joseph did. He encouraged them to be bold in their faith – especially once camp was over and they were back in their daily routines, facing everyday distractions.

He had them repeat out loud: “I am a beloved son or daughter of the Most High God.”

He told them that nothing they do can change their identity, and that God has reserved a spot for each of them in his kingdom.

“I think of myself as a teen, and I would never do any of these [camps or retreats],” Albert said, laughing. “But now, I’ve seen how fruitful it actually is, and how it could change a young person’s life, and completely change and transform communities.”


See more photos from Work Camp!

Watch this video about Work Camp, made by the diocesan Office of Communications!

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