By Dubravka Kolumbic-Cortese and Thomas Wiedmann, Correspondents
Pulling weeds in a farm field on a blistering hot summer day may not be how most teenagers would spend their summer vacation. But the 42 youth and 18 adults from five Ocean County parishes taking part in the fifth annual Mission: Jersey service project wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Just knowing that God put me here to do his work is so powerful to me,” said Brittney Speer, 17, of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville.
“It’s been great, seeing so many teenagers give a week of their summer,” said Matt Accisano, 27, of St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor, one of the young adults to serve as group leader during the weeklong service immersion experience held the first week of August. “It’s great seeing them bond with each other and make friendships.”
Photo Gallery: Teens Full of Faith, Fun During Mission: Jersey
Accisano has been part of Mission: Jersey since its formation following Superstorm Sandy five years ago. Started by Dan Waddington, former youth ministry leader in St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, Mission: Jersey’s primary focus was helping communities rebuild after the storm. In the years since, it has grown to include helping organizations that provide for those in need, many of whom are still feeling the effects of Superstorm Sandy.
“These people are still hurting,” Accisano said, “even though you can’t see it.”
With Waddington named director of the Diocese’s Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries effective July 1, this year’s Mission: Jersey was coordinated on a diocesan level for the first time with hopes of expanding the program next year.
From July 30 to Aug. 4, teens came together from the parishes of St. Barnabas; St. Mary, Barnegat; St. Martha, Point Pleasant; St. Pius X, Forked River, and St. Theresa. The youth were divided into five groups, with each traveling to one of six different worksites each day. The projects included serving meals in both the Lunch Break soup kitchen in Red Bank and Sister Jean’s Kitchen, Atlantic City; sorting and packing canned goods in the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Egg Harbor Township location and helping work at Bruised Reed Farm, Goshen, where fresh produce from the farm supports local food pantries, among others.
Each night, the groups returned to their home base, Holy Spirit High School, Absecon, where they ate dinner, shared the day’s experiences, prayed, celebrated Mass and got some well-earned rest in preparation for the next day’s tasks. Ice breakers and team-building exercises helped the youth get to know each other and bond.
On Aug. 2, perhaps the hottest and most humid day of the week, one group of nine volunteers pulled weeds and laid down watering hoses at Bruised Reed Farm, a cooperative run by the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, the warehouse of which was also one of the worksites. The owners of the farm allow the mission to grow produce for its soup kitchen and food bank. The farm also provides a peaceful escape for the mission’s homeless, a place where they can contribute and make friends.
Kait Ryan, 24, assistant youth minister in St. Mary Parish and religious education teacher in Donovan Catholic, Toms River, said she found working with the kids rejuvenating.
“It’s very humbling and reminds me to be very grateful and present, to share with the kids and remind them it’s not just about themselves,” she said.
Accisano agreed. “I grow a lot from it, too. It helps me improve as a leader to help others.”
Speer said she was looking for a new experience when she decided to join Mission: Jersey this summer. “We all bonded really quickly,” she said of her fellow missionaries. “We are pretty much like a family. We call our team leaders Mom and Dad.”
This was the second year that St. Barnabas Parish volunteer Sara Holleran was as a site leader at the farm.
“It’s a hard week,” she said, “but it’s such a fulfilling week. It’s a blessing. We help others, and we grow ourselves.”
Indeed, Matt Tomaino, 18, of St. Martha Parish, didn’t let his being in a wheelchair prevent him from taking part in the efforts.
“I do what I can. I really try not to let anything stop me,” said Tomaino, who is training for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Sense of Community
As their counterparts served on the farm in Cape May County, another group spent the day in Monmouth County at the Lunch Break soup kitchen, which provides necessities such as food and clothing for community members in need.
The teens readily lent a hand at the Red Bank nonprofit to help mop floors, organize food and clothing, break down cardboard boxes for recycling and help community members shop the food pantry.
Two teens were on their hands and knees, sorting through a box of donated shoes. Although the work of matching pairs of loafers and sneakers seemed meticulous, Callie Salmons, 18, and Rosemary Ruscus, 17, of St. Barnabas Parish found the job fulfilling to their call to serve.
“It gives us a way to see how other people live that we wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” Salmons said. “It’s about serving them [people in need] without judgement.”
Ruscus agreed. “You want to help them no matter what they’ve been through. You just want to make a difference in the community.”
Sierra Giasullo, 22, of St. Theresa Parish was pleased to see the joy of teens coming together from different parishes around the Diocese.
“It really provides a source of inspiration to see a group of … teenagers give up a week of their summer to serve,” Giasullo said. “Mission: Jersey provides a sense of community for these teens. I feel like out in the world, it’s not very common to talk about your religion and your faith, so I think it’s great for the teens to see that they’re not alone in their following of Christ. To see all these people that believe in the same things they do and have them bond over that is really awesome.”
In the lower level of the building, cardboard boxes could be heard ruffling and being broken down as Andrew Werling, 15, of St. Theresa Parish, stacked one flattened box upon another.
“Doing this helps so many people, even in the smallest bit. Even if we don’t see who we’re helping,” Werling said. “It’s been real fun, I love it. Mission: Jersey is actually one of my favorite things of the year. We do retreats, team building exercises, ice-breaker games and even closing prayer at the end of the day is real bonding as well.”