By EmmaLee Italia and Joe Moore,
Teens, young adults and adult chaperones from St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, devoted part of their summer to changing the lives of families in Appalachia – and in the process, they transformed their own lives as well.
“I expected and prepared for a week of hard work and no contact with our usual world,” one participant said during a moment of private faith sharing at one of the camp’s evening prayer meetings. “That turned out to be true … but I never expected that within one week, I would be moved in such a profound way.”
The parish has been operating its Project Appalachia service trip to West Virginia for more than 25 years, said Richard Pieslak, trip coordinator. This year’s group, held July 21-28, comprised 35 teens between ninth and 12th grades, four young adult leaders, 17 adult chaperones, Deacon Joe Moore and Father Al Gamalo, parochial vicar.
The parish coordinates with the Summer Home Repair program administered by the Catholic Church of Preston County, W. Va., which reviews worksite applicants for eligibility.
“We had a great week – we finished all our projects, with some challenges and complexities, but we were able to get everything done on time,” Pieslak said. “The homeowners were very appreciative of all the work.”
The camp workdays began with some participants preparing breakfast and setting up the lunch table before sunrise. After breakfast, campers prepared bag lunches and left for worksites at 8 a.m. The workdays ended between 3-5 p.m., and the group reconvened at camp for dinner and evening prayer service around a bonfire. The group also attended Mass on Sunday and Wednesday.
“Work at the sites varies based on need,” Pieslak said. “We have replaced and repaired sub-floors, windows, porches, porch roofs, decks, handicap ramps, doors and trailer underpinning.”
One of this year’s sites was the trailer home of a family whose son had a stroke, making a ramp and deck necessary for his wheelchair.
Grace Maslak, a first-year teen participant, assisted with the deck construction. She said she was nervous at first, having never done construction work, but by mid-week was fastening boards like a pro.
“I feel like I got really close to the family,” said Maslak. “They had three little kids [who] really touched my heart … it was really nice to talk and get to know them as individuals.”
Maslak said she found the trip rewarding. “Touching hearts is just as important as doing deeds for people.”
Fellow youth member Connor Fitzsimmons worked on the ramp – and while the group had some measuring mishaps, they were able to collaborate and finish the project correctly.
“We ran into some issues … but in the end, I was really happy because we overcame it,” he explained. “It feels so great to see what you’ve accomplished.”
While adults could have stepped in when the group experienced its challenges, Fitzsimmons said, “I’m happy we didn’t get the answer; it was good to work for it. It’s more like real life, because in the real world, people don’t just give stuff to you – you have to work for it.”
Second-year participant Karina Bharatiya is not Catholic, but enjoyed her camp experience so much last year that she opted to return.
“I like helping people,” she said. “I think it’s interesting to practice a new religion and live the daily life here at camp, then go help people during the day, and then at night … take in what happened here … I like being closer to God.”
Pieslak, who has been a co-leader or leader on six of his seven trips, explained that the reason he keeps coming back is for the teens.
“It’s not just about doing service work for people that are less fortunate, [but also] about trying to have them reconnect with their faith,” he said. “Right now a lot of the teens, as they [prepare] to enter college, they tend to walk away from the Church … Hopefully this trip will show them that they need to stay connected to the faith … and to give them a greater appreciation of what they have.”