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Lessons learned while serving others


Two summer programs offered through St. Mary Parish in Bellevue taught young people that service work is more than just volunteering.

Seventh and eighth grade students in the parish participated in Youth Serve, a service-learning program geared at providing learning and reflection opportunities to transform ordinary service into discipleship. And high school students experienced a sense of community through Young Neighbors in Action, a national program active in Omaha for more than 10 years.

This year's Youth Serve program had more than 100 participants - a record number, said Debra Kaufman, program director.

For two weekends in July, junior high students served in the Omaha area at places such as the Open Door Mission, Sacred Heart Parish, Crestview Village and A Women's Touch Pregnancy Center. They did whatever work was needed, including painting, cleaning, organizing and yard work, Kaufman said.

Fourteen-year-old Tara Benak spent time at Boys and Girls Club of Carter Lake where she worked and played with underprivileged children.

The experience, she said, left her feeling very fortunate. She also enjoyed making people smile.

She and other students stayed at College of Saint Mary where they began and ended the day with prayer and had time for reflection. Families were invited to attend the weekend's opening liturgy and to a presentation at the end of the weekend to find out what their children learned for the experience.

In that short time, an awakening happens, Kaufman said. The students learn about various organizations around the city and begin to understand what a difference the make in people's lives, she said.

"I think it's a great thing to get involved in," Benak said. "I like the experience of knowing that I can be a part of the community."

Through the Young Neighbors in Action Program, nearly 30 students - including some from St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion - traveled to El Paso, Texas, July 15-21, where they worked and prayed together. They visited homes of people in hospice care, helped build a thrift store, worked with people from border patrol and beautified a church.

Kaufman said taking teens out of Nebraska also took them out of their comfort zones. They were away from TVs, iPods and cell phones, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the work, she said. They reached out and gained a deeper sense of appreciation for the faith, she said.

This year teens also came to Omaha from Kansas City, Oklahoma, Boston and Chicago to participate in Young Neighbors in Action around the city. They spent July 8-14 volunteering at local organizations and reaching out to others.

"My hope for both programs is that we try to offer them the opportunity to understand what Catholic social teaching is," Kaufman said. "These programs let students do hands-on work during the day and learn through games and speakers in the evening."

This was the third summer that Daniel J. Gross Catholic Senior Shannon Cork took part in Young Neighbors in Action. This year she was in a group that crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico, every day to do work on a church and help with Vacation Bible School.

"It helped me become more grateful for what I have and also become more aware of the situation that people are in. It made me want to do more than just in that one week," Shannon said. "You can go anywhere and help."

And that continued involvement in service work is a goal of both of programs, Kaufman said. Having grown in their understanding of what God is calling them to do through social teaching, the teens are asked about their game plan for the future, she said.

Students from St. Mary Parish have decided to sell Fair Trade Coffee, which is coffee produced and purchased under fair conditions. They plan to take some courses to be the primary sellers of it at their parish, Kaufman said. They also signed on to do work at the Elden F. Curtiss Archdiocesan Youth Camp and Retreat Center. Some will continue helping at A Woman's Touch Pregnancy Center and the Catholic Worker House, she said.

Kyle King, 17, participated in Young Neighbors in Action for the first time this summer and said he enjoyed the trip to El Paso because of the people he met and the lessons he learned while helping build a thrift shop in Texas.

"My eyes were really opened to the plight of those who don't have the benefits that I do, or any benefits at all," he said. "I felt it was important for me to go on this service trip mainly so I could learn things about myself and my faith that I just couldn't experience in Bellevue.

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