Continuing the Group Volunteer Program's Legacy of Outreach and Service

Posted: 3/19/2015

Toppa Joppa volunteersBy Jean Bach

A new era has begun for the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program. But the goals of the program remain: helping youth to connect more deeply with God, to find Christ in others, and to find joy in putting themselves and their needs second to those they serve.

On a chilly, damp late November afternoon, more than 120 people gathered at the Glenmary Farm in Vanceburg, Ky., to say farewell. The site that served as one of two locations for Glenmary's Group Volunteer Program hosted its last volunteer groups in December 2014.

The event brought together former volunteers, Farm managers, Glenmarians and coworkers—as well as local folks whose lives have been impacted by the more than 20,000 volunteers who have passed through Vanceburg over the years.

Those in attendance enjoyed swapping stories, listening to a variety of speakers, joining in a Mass celebrated by Glenmary president Father Chet Artysiewicz, and sharing a light supper.

The decision to close the Glenmary Farm site was made by Glenmary's leadership after Holy Redeemer mission, also located in Vanceburg, was returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Covington in 2013.

"It's important that our volunteer program be integrated with a Glenmary mission community and be part of the missionary outreach in a county," Father Chet explains.

Leadership also made the decision in 2013 to start a new volunteer site in one of Glenmary's newest mission areas in East Tennessee. Nicknamed "Toppa Joppa," the nine-acre site is located in Grainger County outside of Rutledge, on Joppa Mountain. Rutledge is home to St. John Paul II mission.

The service-centered mission experience in Tennessee is patterned after the Farm experience. Volunteers are immersed in local culture by attending Mass at the Glenmary missions, visiting other churches and enjoying community events in the evenings.

Volunteers also take part in outreach ministries each day that include helping staff four community food pantries and a summer camp for the children of migrant workers, helping with home renovation and repair, spending time with children living at a residential group home, and taking part in short-term projects as needed.

"We hope that those who serve with our volunteer program, no matter its location, are able to put their faith into practice and leave the program as better Christian people because of their experience," Father Chet says.

Glenmary's volunteer program has gone through several incarnations in its years of existence. It began as a vocation discernment program for individual high school and college-aged men in 1971. Eventually, groups from colleges and high schools began taking part in the program, helping it expand and grow into the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program.

According to Joe Grosek, who served as a long-term Farm manager for two years and has served as director of the volunteer program since 2003, the program strives to "connect young people with God, help them find Christ in others, and teach them to serve others first and put themselves second.

"It's important to expose young people to mission needs right here in our own country and to invite them to join Glenmary in responding to those needs."

While it's difficult to move on from the legacy that the Farm has left, Joe is confident volunteers who come to Tennessee will have transformative experiences.

"Many volunteers find their service with Glenmary leads them to spend a week or month or more of service elsewhere," Joe says. "And their experience may also lead them to long-term commitments of service in the Church and community or to professions that allow them to serve the least among us."

One of the hallmarks of the volunteer program is the opportunity for volunteers to leave behind the complexity of their lives and focus on simple living. For many youth, their volunteer time with Glenmary is the first time in their lives when technology isn't readily available.

"This gives them time to simplify their lives and concentrate on relating to other people," Joe explains. Through helping and learning about others, the volunteers often find they've learned more about themselves and how they want to live their lives.

The Glenmarians that the volunteers meet during their time of service (in the past at the Farm and today at Toppa Joppa) are key to this learning.

"Having a Glenmary mission—in Tennessee we have two—accessible to the volunteers is very important," Joe says. "The volunteers see members of the mission team—Father Steve Pawelk, Brother Craig Digmann and Brother Joe Steen—in their ministry settings and see them relate to the folks. That makes a huge impact on the volunteers."

Since Glenmary began inviting young people to leave behind all they know and spend time in the home missions, thousands of young men and women have answered the call to serve. The majority of those volunteers traveled to the Farm, and as a result, can share a laundry list of common experiences that elicit both tears and laughter.

Today, the program's core elements of service, prayer and cultural immersion in an environment of simple living remain the same. Only the location has changed. The Tennessee site will allow volunteers to leave behind the trappings of home to find—and share—peace through their service to the residents of Grainger and Union counties.

Just like their predecessors in Lewis County, Ky., these volunteers are living signs of the Catholic Church's presence in Union and Grainger counties, where—until Glenmary arrived in 2011—the Church was not known. Through their service, the Church is becoming more widely known and, in some cases, more widely accepted.

Joe feels a responsibility to create and build up a program that has the same life-changing impact on volunteers as the Kentucky program.

His efforts are bearing fruit. High school and college groups are booked at Toppa Joppa through September.

"God is the center of our program," Joe says. "And with God's help, it will continue for many, many years to come."

For More Information: See photos from the Glenmary Farm and the Nov. 22 celebration at


Glenmary Volunteer Experience
Left an 'Indelible Mark'

By Larry Streigel

My invitation to the Glenmary Farm was a poster on a college bulletin board depicting a poor boy in tattered clothing.

“God made me,” it said. “God don’t make junk."

The poster invited me to try something different from courses, careers and social life.

It was the late 1970s. I sent in the coupon from the poster, got details in the mail, and the next summer drove from New Jersey to Vanceburg, Ky. It would be the first of nearly half a dozen trips in the next few years.

My memories of the Farm return in glimpses:

•  Hearing Brother Bob Hoffman tell college boys from around the country that moving rocks, digging ditches and building was one way to do God’s work.
•  Seeing the impoverished living conditions of some area residents. Don’t judge by appearances, we were told, but learn to see people for themselves and try to imagine walking in their shoes.
•  Singing “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” “In Heaven There Is No Beer” and “Make the World Go Away,” led by the joyful guitar of Jerry Dorn, then a Glenmary brother (Brother Jim) and later a priest.
•  Learning to tie a rope “Swiss seat” around my midsection to rappel out of a tree.

Some memories are fuller. One day more than a dozen volunteers visited a local tobacco farmer to learn about the growing and harvesting of a cash crop that provided a livelihood for a proud family of humble means. The college boys sat in the drying barn to hear the farmer tell his story. When a Glenmarian asked how many of the young men smoked cigarettes, not one raised a hand.

During a winter break, volunteers enjoyed a Christmas play by local children. Popcorn was distributed in brown paper bags. I dug into mine, but a poor boy of 8 or 9 seated next to me saved his to take home.

Yet when my popcorn was gone, he noticed and unselfishly held out his unopened bag. “Do you want mine?” he asked, completely sincere.

The spirit of the Farm inspired me to explore Glenmary further. I spent nearly a year as a parish volunteer in Georgia and then entered the House of Studies in Dayton.
Eventually, I went back to a career in journalism. But the dedicated people I met in and outside of Glenmary, and the lessons of Christian caring I learned at the Farm and beyond, left an indelible mark on my life.

Larry Striegel works as news editor at Newsday, the newspaper covering Long Island, N.Y.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 Glenmary Challenge.