Five years ago, a week of service in late July was the last thing sisters Joanne and Autumn Cybulski wanted to do during summer break.
But the days spent painting, pulling weeds and sorting boxes for residents and programs in Lancaster have since become a high point of their summer.
This year, they joined nearly 60 of their peers for the 20th annual WOM Week of service, July 29-Aug. 2. Focusing on the Works of Mercy, the day camp is organized from Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Lancaster, and sends students in grades 7-12 into the community to be the hands and feet of Christ.
Service activities this year included yardwork at parishioners’ homes and at Brethren Village, storing items from San Juan Bautista Parish’ festival, distributing diapers at A Woman’s Concern, sorting donations at Water Street Rescue Mission, resident activities at St. Anne’s Retirement Community, and distributing Rosaries during street evangelization.
The participants, who came from various parishes in the Lancaster area, are accompanied by adult volunteers who take the youth to the sites and supervise their efforts.
The camp is intentionally named for participants to focus on the Corporal Works of Mercy, explained Joanne Cybulski, 16.
“Feeding the hungry: we can serve at the soup kitchen downstairs here, and give snacks and water to people downtown. Clothing the naked: we distribute diapers at A Woman’s Concern. Visit the Sick: we spend time with people at local nursing homes,” she said.
“It really is a great way to serve your community, and that’s why I liked it when I joined last year,” said Lydia Fuhrman, 14. “I love helping people…. For me, the most important thing in my life is giving to other people. It makes me feel so good. It’s not even an object in return that I want, it’s just the contentment that I get when I’m serving people.”
For Autumn Cybulski, 18, the reward of the week is “just getting to go out and serve the community – the less fortunate and those who may be fortunate but are stuck in a tough situation. Giving back and living out my faith makes this a great time for me,” said Autumn, who is considering a religious vocation because of the joy she finds in serving.
Many of the participants who spoke with The Catholic Witness at various service sites on July 31 said street evangelization is their favorite component of the week.
Supplied with dozens of Rosaries, prayer cards and bottled water, the teens greeted people as they passed through Penn Square in the heart of the city. Some pedestrians gladly accepted the Rosaries, prayed with the teens or shared a prayer intention. Others politely declined or adamantly refused.
“It’s really cool to share your faith with other people who might not know anything about it,” Joanne said. “You go to someone and say, ‘Would you like a free Rosary?’ They’ll say ‘No, thank you,’ and you move along because you don’t want to push. Or, they’ll say yes, and then you ask, ‘Do you know how to pray it?’ We have prayer cards we can give them so they learn how to pray it and continue to pray it.”
“You just have to go into it with a positive, open mind and accept that some people are going to say no or give you rude comments,” she continued. “But other people are going to be open and willing to talk about their faith. Either way, it’s a win, because you get to share your faith with everybody you encounter.”
The teens met homeless people, business people, city workers, young families, the elderly and people with disabilities. By the end of WOM Week, they filled a portable bulletin board with dozens of prayer intentions.
“We are prepared to answer questions that they have or just talk with them and ask about their prayer intentions, said Lydia. “One day, I had an hour-long conversation with men working valet at the hotel, and it was so great. They had questions and we talked about their faith and being closer to God.”
“I really like street evangelization. You’re downtown and you have no idea who you’re going to run into or what they’re going to say. You just offer them a Rosary and maybe some prayers,” said Sam Ellis, 18. “It’s a really awesome and fun time. It might seem kind of intimidating at first, but you’re with other people sharing the faith.”
Spirituality and Service
WOM Week is a highly-orchestrated venture, currently coordinated by Bob Cybulski, Youth Ministry Coordinator at Assumption BVM Parish.
Nearly 40 adult volunteers chaperone the teens at 25 work sites throughout the course of the week. Feeding and entertaining 60 teens is no easy task either; volunteers prepare dinner and contribute snacks and drinks. Entertainment at the end of the day keeps the youth boisterous with everything from karaoke and board games to basketball, a Nerf battle and a week-ending trip to Hershey Park.
Maya Bennett, 16, in her second year at WOM Week, said she’s been able to meet teens from other parishes as they serve the community.
“WOM is growing every year. Last year, there were 40 of us, and this year we have almost 60, which is good, because there are always people who are going to need help in our community,” Maya said. “Participating in this week brings me joy. I like seeing how people benefit from it, how it makes them smile.”
The spiritual component of WOM Week draws participants closer to the Lord through Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Combined with reflection period at the end of each day, these afford the teens an opportunity to ponder the Works of Mercy and their service to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Mass and Adoration give you a break so that you can be fully involved with God, and the reflections allow us consider the work that was done, and how you’ve helped so many people,” said Lydia.
A noteworthy aspect of the week is that the teens don’t know where they’ll be serving until they depart for the location. They’re divided into small groups each morning and asked to serve where they’re sent.
“When you find out your assignment, you don’t really have time to react and wonder if you’re ready for it…. It’s fun to see where you’re going each day because it’s always a surprise,” said Lydia.
Autumn, who plans to return next year as a chaperone, said the mystery surrounding each day’s assignment lends greater purpose to the teens’ roles in the program.
“I come in with the mindset that today’s not about me, it’s about who I’m going to be serving that day. And I’m with a different group every day, so even if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, like pulling weeds, I enjoy who I’m doing it with,” she said.
“Even in pulling weeds or cleaning old staircases, there’s at least one person that it means a lot to, and that’s really all that matters. You’re serving for God, for a greater good. You are being the hands and feet of Christ.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness