Former Volunteers Say Farm Trip Changed Lives
It was 1962 when Glenmary established its mission in Lewis County, Ky., where less than 1 percent of the population are Catholic and economic resources are very limited. Then in 1971, the society started the Glenmary Farm a few miles away—but it never was an actual farm.
"As a Glenmary brother once said, ‘We don't grow crops—we grow people,'" says Joe Grosek, longtime director of the Farm's Group Volunteer Program and previously a Farm manager (a long-term volunteer who leads volunteer groups).
About 500 students from U.S. Catholic high schools, colleges and youth groups come to the Farm each year to experience a weeklong, retreat-like experience of missionary service to Lewis County residents; prayer and reflection; immersion into local Appalachian culture; community building; and an environment of simple living. Throughout its history, the Farm has welcomed over 20,000 young people to the county.
For students of Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, Farm trips have been an annual event the past 25 years (usually two trips a year), with two earlier visits.
Jane Jacquemin-Clark, a veteran Watterson religious educator, was in charge of these trips from 1989 to 2010 and chaperoned many. Teacher Ray Maurer has chaperoned for 14 years and has served as trip organizer since 2011.
"The experience has always been very life-changing and meaningful for our students," says Jane. "It nourishes or awakens their faith, and it instills the Christian call and desire to love and serve others."
Jane and Ray stress that while many county residents are financially poor, they are rich in values, faith and wisdom. "All the volunteers have really learned from them," says Jane. Through helping and learning about others, Joe adds, Farm volunteers often find they've learned even more about themselves—and how they want to live their lives. The students and chaperones also help provide a positive Catholic presence in Lewis County.
Joe emphasizes that God is the center of the program—and that 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.
One former Watterson volunteer—a 1989 graduate—is Glenmary Brother David Henley. "The Farm trip changed my life," he says. "It's what first opened my eyes to the tremendous mission need in our country and to Glenmary's work. I went back several times, including a year as a Farm manager. And later on, I answered God's call to join Glenmary."
Collin Smith, Watterson class of 1999, feels the Farm experience affected his entire life, too: "I learned life is about people and how you treat others." In addition to his high school trip, he spent a week at the Farm while a college engineering major—then, after much thought and prayer, accepted an invitation to be a Farm manager. "I soon realized I was called to be an educator of young people, not an engineer." He's now a middle school teacher.
After each week's Farm group is welcomed and familiarized with what's ahead, volunteer teams begin rotating through community work sites.
Major sites include an organization that builds and renovates homes for low-income persons; a nursing home; a day care center for developmentally disabled adults; and a food pantry and rummage store. Volunteers also help residents with farm or yard work and assist with community projects.
After work, they have opportunities to relax and experience Appalachian culture, listen to area musicians, join local mission members at Mass, and attend services at a church of another faith.
And at the end of every evening, volunteers gather together for reflection, prayer and sharing.
Jenny Bucher, Watterson class of 2008, says that she "really got to experience and appreciate the culture and people. And I helped build a house for a family." Her trip taught her to step out of her comfort zone and strengthened her faith. Now a teacher at a Catholic grade school, she says she's "sharing Catholic values with my students and showing them that when we help people in need, we receive even more back."
And Megan Woodall—a 2001 Watterson graduate who works in a college human resources department—echoed some of Jenny's feelings about Lewis County residents. "They were so welcoming. I think they helped us more than we helped them. The Farm trip has made me a more compassionate, accepting person. It's so basic: you should treat others as you want to be treated. But it was a huge experience."
Because one Glenmary charism is simplicity, the volunteers can't bring technological devices (e.g., cell phones), junk food or other extraneous items with them to Lewis County. The goal, Joe says, is to help them be truly present for each other and the people they serve.
"We get to see lives change," Ray says. "Students also pray and listen to God in a different way because they're living simply and focusing on the moment. They don't want to leave; there are tears at the end. But they also have a stronger faith and better perspective for the future."