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Transformed by God’s Love
By Amelia Eudy

Local Youth Make a Difference in the Lives of the Poor

Sweating through their work clothes, cleaning toilets, sleeping on the floor in a parish hall and swatting away bugs is not the way most teenagers would choose to spend a week during their summer vacation. But that’s exactly what about 50 teens did for a week in early June - and some even paid money to do it.

As participants in two social justice programs - SPLUNGE and Urban Plunge - youth and young adults were given an opportunity to form relationships with men, women and children who are easily forgotten or neglected. All came away with a better knowledge of the needs in their community and many agreed that the experience helped them understand that simple acts can truly change and transform the world.
  Julia Moody, 15, and Brian O’Shea, 15, rake leaves in the yard of an 83-year-old disabled gentleman from St. John Parish.
  Mitchell Fratesi, 15, of Sacred Heart, Green Cove Springs, cleans the dust off the blinds in another apartment.
  Brad Knox, 15, washes an apartment floor.
  SPLUNGE participant, Jena Hayes from St. Catherine Parish, Orange Park, hands a care basket to Morris Manor resident, Gloria Baker.

In Putnam County, one of the poorest counties in Florida, 15-year-old Hayley Bowker struggled to extend a paint roller dripping with pink paint. She is not an expert painter, nor is pink her favorite color, but Carolyn “Sue” Clark wanted a rose-colored house. Clark relies on the help of a motorized wheelchair to get around her small, tile-floor home. It’s the only place she gets to see these days because she is homebound and lives day-to-day on a low, fixed income.

“I never liked the color the government painted my house and we never had the money to do anything with it ourselves,” Sue said. “Ever since I lost my husband it seems like everything has been dark. Pink was my husband’s favorite color.”

Although the temperature reached 90 degrees as crews painted, being able to help someone living below the poverty level touched the hearts of the young volunteers. “They feel like they’re making a difference in people’s lives and that’s very empowering,” said Jan Balota, youth director for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Palm Coast. Youth from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Parish in Interlachen participated together in Urban Plunge, a program designed to serve the people Christ wants us to serve. The youth worked closely with volunteers from the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Interlachen who helped identify the clients and their needs.

“We try to take care of their (the poor and disabled) spiritual needs, but they have physical needs, too,” said Father Bob Napier, who is especially familiar with the needs of the community surrounding his parish, St. John in Interlachen. Father Bob moved out of the rectory to give the female volunteers a “home base” for the week. He enjoyed hosting the teens at his parish and stressed the importance of giving them opportunities to become disciples in the world. He has worked with young people for 50 years and still admires their idealism and zeal to help others. “They have a vision that goes beyond us poor, inhibited adults,” he says.

Back on the north side of Jacksonville, 16-year-old Chris Batshone and supervisor, Dan Lahey of San Jose Parish, pulled out a refrigerator belonging to Morris Manor resident, Mary Bell, and found years worth of caked food and dirt underneath. “There’s a whole other perspective to situations in our own community that they haven’t seen or been sensitized to,” five-year SPLUNGE veteran, Dan, said of the new volunteers. “There’s a full spectrum of reaction - surprise, fear, understanding, joy and fulfillment. I think they learn a lot about themselves. They’re doing the things they thought they couldn’t do.”

SPLUNGE - an acronym for Special People Living a Uniquely Nourishing Growthful Experience - is a retreat for youth and young adults between the ages of 15 and 21. It provides an opportunity for them to live the inner city lifestyle for a week and learn how they can make a difference in the lives of the poor.

Understanding the plight of the elderly in the inner city, some neglected, was “eye-opening” for 16-year-old Margaret Kates of San Jose Parish. She took a break from dusting to talk to Mary Bell. “I’m so used to my own area of town and not the inner city. There’s so much love everywhere. So many people are working together to make it better,” Margaret said. Mary, who has lived at Morris Manor for 12 years, has six children of her own, who “seem like they don’t have the time” to help her clean up. “It’s a blessing to me,” she said about the SPLUNGers coming to help. “My house hasn’t been cleaned in so long.”

SPLUNGE is in its sixth year and guided by coordinator, Linda Knight. “We try to have a diversity (of clients served) … minority groups that fall through the cracks; anyone who is marginalized,” she said.

Lindsay Matsko, 15, from Sacred Heart Parish in Green Cove Springs, cleaned the kitchen floor of an elderly gentleman who, she said, “Seemed like he was forgotten and not visited - ever.” She participates in many things within her church community, but said she wants to return to SPLUNGE when she is 18 to work as a youth leader.

For 18-year-old Kyle Stuard of St. Luke Parish in Middleburg, the week of immersing himself in the social issues of his community helped him revitalize his faith life. “It has definitely gotten me out of a ‘slump.’ [SPLUNGE] has boosted it (my faith) back up. I’m ready to go out and do everything again.” He wants other teens to realize what’s going on in the world and to take action. “It’s time for them to get out there. This is their world too. It’s time to do something about it and not expect to be handed everything on a silver platter.”

Locally, the Diocese of Saint Augustine has many programs and initiatives to promote social justice. SPLUNGE participants had a chance to hear about those during their retreat in June. Many were interested in ministering to the homeless after having experienced a week without money, little food and no showers. Others were interested in learning more about working with the disabled at “Camp I Am Special.” Father Edward Rooney introduced teens to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), and husband and wife team, Nancy and David O’Byrne, spoke to the teens about their work with the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, prison ministry and efforts underway to abolish the death penalty.

Sixteen-year-old Emily Pollackov of Christ the King Parish was especially interested in learning more about the plight of the homeless after she and 21 other youth had an opportunity to work with them during the week. “It taught me that something needs to be done to help the homeless before they get to that point, as well as after,” she said. “They didn’t choose it (to be homeless). We need to find out what we can do to fix it.”

By the end of the week, the teens were physically exhausted, ready to take warm showers and eat their fill; but they had been fed - spiritually. “These people don’t have a lot, but their faith is very strong. That rubs off on us as well,” Philip Timlin, 23, said as he helped rake leaves at the home of a disabled 83-year-old man who was worried about the threat of wildfires. “It’s rough, but it’s good that we’re helping communities around us and not going around the world. It’s just 30 miles up the road. They are our neighbors,” he said.