Arkansas Youth Group Carries on Mission Legacy

Posted: 6/4/2012

Booneville, Ark., mission youth group on mission trip in Mississippi.Our Lady of the Assumption (OLA) in Booneville, Ark., is among the three missions Glenmary is returning to the care of the Diocese of Little Rock in June 2012. But one of the important Glenmary legacies that will live on in this small community of 60 families, says Glenmary pastor Father Don Tranel, is its thriving, active youth group, whose members are learning and living out the meaning of service and mission.

On two recent mission trips, for instance, the youth group members made major strides in this learning process.

"Booneville has been a destination for other groups' mission trips because it's in a poor rural area," says Catherine Phillips, the mission's youth group coordinator and director of religious education.

"But our mission's young people have become very community-service-minded—largely thanks to Father Don's encouragement since he came in 2006. And a couple of years ago, we decided they were ready for experiences that would open their eyes to needs outside their own mission area."

Catherine found an ideal opportunity last year at St. Gabriel Mercy Center in Mound Bayou, Miss. A group of mission youths and chaperones spent several days in Spring 2011 working with three Sisters of Mercy who run the Center, which provides outreach and services for community residents in need.

"After that great experience, we started making plans to return in 2012," she says. This past spring, Catherine and 20 youths ages 11-18, along with four other adult chaperones, made the second mission trip to Mound Bayou March 17-22.

A six-hour drive from Booneville, this small, struggling city in the Mississippi Delta was founded in 1887 as an independent black community. Today, more than 47 percent of its 1,500-plus people live below the national poverty line. "No matter who you are," says Catherine, "somebody always needs your help. We're all called at baptism to go and serve."

The St. Gabriel Mercy Center is involved in a range of ministries to assist area residents. One ministry is to welcome volunteers and provide them with meaningful work to do. And unlike the majority of service opportunities for youths, the Center's work program is open to both high school and junior high students, she says. "Those are two reasons why it's a perfect fit for us."

This year the youths did work at senior citizens' homes in Mound Bayou and nearby Shelby—from lawn raking to furniture moving. They also helped with bingo, sing-alongs, and other programs for seniors transported to the Center. They tutored students in a GED (General Educational Development) program. They helped with a Habitat for Humanity house construction project in neighboring Cleveland. And they took on many cleaning jobs at the Center.

In addition, they dug and planted a garden for the sisters. And they planted thousands of vegetable seedlings at a nearby Alcorn State University research farm—including those in a garden whose harvest is designated for Mound Bayou residents. Along the way, they reconnected with friends they made the year before, especially senior citizens, as well as making many new ones.

"A highlight for our youth group members," says Catherine, "was reaching out to play games and make friends with local young people who would congregate after school at the fields and basketball court behind the Center."

Kids like to feel needed, Catherine says. "When they can do hands-on work, it's just amazing how they respond. Everyone got to give and receive."

In the words of group member Jaycie Rodatz, "I've never had so much fun working so hard. It really felt like I was bringing Christ to others!"

Catherine says she's tried to keep the trips rooted in prayer-and that the group prayed together every day on this year's trip. They also attended Masses since they were housed at a Catholic parish center in Cleveland.

"Each night, we asked different group members to prepare a small reflection and prayer service. What they said in those services made me feel the experience had touched their hearts—that it was potentially life-changing and something they'd always remember. I think we're fostering hearts of service in these young people. And we're reinforcing Father Don's and Glenmary's message."

The youth group currently has 25-30 active members who meet weekly for Mass, food and sharing. It has grown and become more active ever since Father Don's arrival, says Catherine.

In fact, in both 2010 and 2012, this group was recognized by the Diocese of Little Rock as its most outstanding youth ministry (small parish category).

On the Sunday this past March when they were away in Mississippi, Father Don commented in his homily at OLA: "You'll notice that 20 percent of our parishioners aren't here today. Our youths and their chaperones are walking what we talk. They are our ambassadors in mission. We learn from their witness, and we're very grateful."

On May 13, when he heard the group had won the diocesan award a second time, he congratulated the youths and leaders. And he slept well that night, he says, because he knew the mission's youth ministry legacy would be in good hands for the future.

This article appears in the June 2012 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.