Youth enjoy mission service in their backyards

Through ‘Love Begins Here,’ teens participate in service and prayer at host parishes

Madison Oeftger, an incoming freshman at Neenah High School and member of St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton, weeds a prayer garden at the home of Jerry Verhagen, a member of St. Paul Parish, Combined Locks. (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

COMBINED LOCKS — Countless mission trips were canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including those in the Green Bay Diocese. With life returning to normal this summer, the Love Begins Here mission service program for diocesan youth is back in action.

Love Begins Here provides middle school and high school youth an opportunity to “encounter Jesus Christ in a life-changing way” through weeklong local mission trips.

Lynn Terrien, who is coordinator for the Love Begins Here for the Green Bay Diocese, described the program, which began locally in 2017. “Love Begins Here runs for five weeks in the summer. We have three middle school weeks (Sunday through Wednesday) and two high school weeks (Sunday through Thursday),” she said. “We have six core team members: college students consisting of three young women and three young men who are seminarians or applying to the seminary.”

Host parishes this summer are Sacred Heart in Shawano, Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere, St. Bernard in Appleton, St. Paul in Combined Locks and St. John the Baptist in Howard.

“We start each day with Mass. Then we give the kids a snack and they go to a worksite for a couple of hours,” said Terrien. “They come back for lunch for an hour, socialize and play games like nine square or spike ball.”

In the afternoons, youth head to a second worksite or return to finish at the first worksite. They return to church at 3 p.m. “We (recite) the rosary, the core team does an inspirational talk, we have a snack, then we collect together and debrief.”

The debriefing session is called “collatio,” Latin for “bringing together.” “We ask the kids what was a funny thing that happened that day and where did they see God,” she said.

The sacrament of reconciliation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are also offered one day during the week, added Terrien.

“Every day the core team does a talk based on a theme. The theme this year is ‘revival.’ They might talk about sainthood, confession or about St. Mother Teresa. She’s our patron, we follow her example.”

While volunteering benefits the teens, for the elderly residents — whose homes or yards receive special care from the volunteers — they relish visits from young people, said Terrien. “The residents are so hungry for conversation. I call all the worksites and they’re telling me how anxious they are to see people and talk to people,” she explained.

St. Paul parishioner Robin Price had a group of teens working at her house. “My husband, Bob, had a stroke in November and cleaning the siding was one of the projects we always wanted to get to,” she said. “Having the kids here is a big help to me. It would have taken me a couple of days to do this.”

Core team members make the program, Terrien added. “The kids are working alongside college students who are on fire for their faith, so they have great examples all around them. They’re fun and they’re cool. We’ve even had young high school boys have conversations with the guys in seminary. The core team makes service and worship very personal and that is really powerful for the kids,” she said.

Sami Boehm, a member of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Oshkosh, is a core team member this year. She will graduate in December from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Boehm participated in Love Begins Here when she was a high school senior and the experience inspired her to serve on the team.

“I love Mother Teresa, I love working with youth, I love the actual volunteer work and meeting the residents as well,” she said. “It’s like my dream job. I would do this full time if I could.”

Praying the rosary or going to adoration is a new experience for a lot of youth, said Terrien. “I see the most transformation in the fewest number of days, how the kids grow in their faith, how they grow in being service-minded,” she said. “I think kids have this servant heart, but they don’t necessarily have a vehicle to try it out.”

Mariana Oeftger, who belongs to St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton and will be entering seventh grade at Shattuck Middle School in Neenah this fall, was participating with her sister, Madison, a Neenah High School freshman. Their mom, Jennifer, chaperoned all week.

Mariana spent a good portion of one day weeding a prayer garden for an elderly resident. “I don’t really have a green thumb, but I love helping out people and I love getting closer to God. We both want to come back next year,” she said.