By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Most parents would tell you it’s hard enough getting teenagers to make their own beds—forget getting them to make someone else’s. But that’s just what 15 high schoolers from Immaculate Conception Parish in Fayetteville did earlier this summer.
The young adults spent Aug. 4 to 10 in the south Bronx, an area just north of Manhattan burdened with high rates of crime and poverty. As volunteers on the parish’s latest PLUNGE trip, they were there to serve the poor. That included making beds in a shelter for the homeless.
“All service is important,” Kelly Colangelo, youth minister at Immaculate Conception (IC) and leader of the trip, reminded them. “You don’t know how big the impact of a small gesture can be.”
Big impact through small acts is at the core of PLUNGE. The week-long volunteer service experiences have brought young adults to work and live in economically disadvantaged urban communities in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Camden, NJ; and Utica. In the Bronx, students volunteered in a day care, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter and a nursing home, all run by religious organizations in service to the poor. Dishing out hot meals to the homeless and giving piggyback rides to underprivileged toddlers might seem like small tasks, but the positive effects—both on the recipients and the students—are huge.
Junior Austin Weiss did some street evangelizing with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal outside the soup kitchen. Once people ate their fill and came out on the sidewalk, he offered them a rosary and conversation. For a few moments, he was able to connect on a personal level with people who are often treated like objects or simply ignored. The week was full of profound moments like that. “[The trip] brought me closer to God,” said Weiss.
Colangelo wanted to provide that kind of transformative experience for students when she started the “homemade mission trips” in 2008. “I wanted to create a way for teens to find the face of Christ in others,” she said. “One way to do that is to serve the poor.”
That year, she brought a group of teens to Philadelphia for the hands-on volunteer work she calls the “ministry of presence.” The trip took the students out of their comfort zones and brought them face-to-face with those the faithful are called to serve. That trip was such a success that the program expanded to two trips the following year, and to four the year after that. Today the trips are so popular they are always full to capacity. Colangelo credits the teenagers, families and pastor Father Thomas Ryan with PLUNGE’s success. “The whole IC community has been nothing but supportive,” she said.
She also believes PLUNGE experiences are so powerful for the students because of the significant amount of time they spend in prayer and reflection with one another. On every trip, the group goes to Mass in the morning and follows it with reflection. The day ends with an evening reflection and the rosary. Colangelo said that sometimes just having someone to pray with can transform the teens and further awaken their faith.
More students will have the opportunity to take the PLUNGE in the coming months; an international PLUNGE to Jamaica is in the works for February and a junior high-level PLUNGE in Syracuse is being planned for October. That trip will mirror the traditional PLUNGE trips, bringing students to Catholic organizations serving the homeless and sick in Syracuse. “Home is where we need to serve, too,” Colangelo said.
She looks forward to more PLUNGE experiences in the future, and is uplifted by those who have already participated in the trips. So, too, is Father Ryan, who was able to join the students for part of the Bronx trip.
“I was very proud of these young people. Their service was wonderful to witness,” he said. “Each evening when we gathered for prayer and reflection, the students would share how they saw the face of Christ in their service that day. I told them that I saw the face of Christ in each of them as they served their brothers and sisters.”