Glenmary Farm: Growing People for 40 Years

Posted: 1/15/2011

Glenmary Farm VolunteersGlenmary decided in 1962 to establish a new mission—Holy Redeemer—in Lewis County, Ky., where less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic and economic resources are very limited. Glenmary saw the needs of area residents and thought they could make a difference by serving the county. The small mission is still very much alive today.

Then in 1971, 40 years ago, the society started operating Glenmary Farm just a few miles away from the mission. But it was never a typical farm. "As a Glenmary brother once said, ‘We don't grow crops—we grow people,'" says Joe Grosek, the first full-time lay director of the Farm's Group Volunteer Program.

Four decades later, in an average year at the Farm, more than 500 students from Catholic high schools, colleges and youth groups around the country come by the van-load to experience a week of missionary service, prayerful reflection, immersion into Appalachian culture, and an environment of simple living. Through helping and learning about others, the volunteers often find they've learned even more about themselves—and how they want to live their lives. They also help provide a positive Catholic presence in Lewis County.

"Students and chaperones tell us their stays here are very meaningful, fun and life-changing," Joe says. He estimates nearly 20,000 young people have had the Farm experience. Before accepting the director job eight years ago, he had two years of invaluable experience as a Farm manager—a long-term volunteer who leads and coordinates volunteer groups.

To celebrate the Farm's 40th anniversary, Joe has invited past and current Farm managers to a July 11-17 reunion. This anniversary is also an ideal opportunity to reflect on why the Farm has made such a difference for so many people.

"I believe it's because God is the center of our program," Joe says. "The Farm's charism is to connect young people with God, help them find Christ in others, and teach them to serve others first and put themselves second. We work very hard to make the program the best it can be. But I've also learned we need to have faith that God is taking care of the Farm."

For many years, the Farm had a vocation emphasis. It was a place where young men came to gain a deeper understanding of Glenmary's mission and consider vocations with Glenmary.

But service to those in need in Lewis County has been part of every Farm program. And even in the early years, Joe says, weeks not reserved for vocation-oriented groups were filled with male and female students interested in a Christian service program. The Farm has gradually evolved into what it is today—home to a volunteer program dedicated to groups wanting a service-centered mission experience.

These days, after each week's group is welcomed and familiarized with what's ahead, they are divided into teams and begin rotating through a variety of community work sites.

The four major sites include People's Self-Help Housing (an organization that builds and renovates homes for low-income persons); Vanceburg Golden Living Center (a nursing home for the elderly and disabled); Comprehend (a day care center for developmentally disabled adults); and the ecumenical Lending a Helping Hand Food Pantry and rummage store.

Volunteers also help residents with farm or yard work, deliver firewood, do Glenmary Farm chores, and help with specific efforts such as Project Merry Christmas (a community project for needy families).

After work, the students have many opportunities to relax, experience Appalachian culture, listen to area musicians play their music, join Holy Redeemer parishioners at an evening Mass, and attend services at a church of another faith.

At the end of every evening, volunteers gather for reflection and prayer. "This time is when everybody can process and share what they've experienced," Joe says.

Because one Glenmary charism is simplicity, volunteers are asked not to bring any technological devices (e.g., cell phones), junk food or other extraneous items. The goal, Joe says, is to free them from the trappings of home so "they can be truly present for each other and the people they serve."

After 40 years, the Farm is still a key part of Glenmary's mission, Joe says. "It's an important way to expose young people to mission needs right in our own country, and to invite them to join Glenmary in responding to those needs."

Adult chaperones have said that the Farm trip really opens their students' eyes to a larger reality. Joe adds that many Farm volunteers find this service leads them to a week or month or more of service elsewhere—and later on leads them to long-term commitments to service for the Church and community.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.

For more information about Glenmary Farm and other Glenmary volunteer opportunities, please see the Glenmary Web page.