Sweat poured off Elianna Caro’s brow. Under her pink hat, her dark eyes narrowed as she worked to help clean up the dirt being thrown back by her fellow workers.
This was her vacation.
Caro, 15, was one of 800 teenagers from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington who helped serve the underprivileged in nine Virginia counties during WorkCamp 2017.
A native of King George and a 10th grader at St. Michael Archangel, Caro, 15, donated $500 to have the opportunity to help others this summer.
“I can go on vacation any time,” Caro said. “These people don’t have as much as we do, so helping them is the least we can do.”
Caro was one of about 15 teens working in Culpeper County Monday afternoon, at the home of Kristal Kissenberger, off Browning Road in the southern part of the county near Orange.
“They’re definitely happy to have us here and we’re happy to serve them,” Caro said.
Kissenberger said her mother was instrumental in helping have the three crews of Catholic teens come out and work on the house she is renting to own. She’s lived in the home with her husband and three children and said that “little hardships,” have led them to not keep it up as best they could.
She said they reached out through Orange Social Services and were connected with the WorkCamp group, who arrived on Monday and immediately began working on refinishing the roof, putting in new windows and building a deck and a cover for the deck.
“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” Kissenberger said. “I can understand helping someone in the community. I’m more apt to help someone else than do something for my house. It’s great to get to know new people. I’m very grateful for all the help.”
For the teen volunteers, the mission is two-fold. It’s to help those who need it and to help become closer to God. For Caro, she said the few hours that they had already spent working outside had already deepened her faith.
“Beforehand, I’ll admit I didn’t really feel like God was near me,” Caro said. “But helping out these people, we’re almost like we’re God’s helpers. It’s helping bring me closer to God because I feel like he’s closer to me.”
She also formed a bond with her teammates, laughing and joking with Gabi Yousef. Yousef, 17, of Great Falls and a senior at Langley High School, said that she wasn’t a regular at church but the opportunity to volunteer during the summer called to her.
“At home I only go to church occasionally, here since I’m surrounded by it, it helps me understand it better,” Yousef said. “I’m hoping to grow closer to God and I want to be able to participate more and be more hands on in a group.”
At home, Yousef volunteers regularly because she likes to give back. She wasn’t as well versed with power tools, but like the others in her group she was learning. And when they weren’t working on the house, they busied themselves by pulling weeds and helping wherever they were needed.
Yousef said that being surrounded by like-minded teens helped strengthen her faith.
“I’m surrounded by peers, that helps a lot because they speak my language,” Yousef said. “It’s peer pressure in a good way.”
This was the second year Morgan McNutt, 15, a junior at Bishop Ireton High School has participated in WorkCamp. She said last year’s experience helped bring her closer to God and now she wanted to continue to build that bond and help others.
Morgan McNutt, 15, Alexandria, Bishop Ireton, 11th grade
“It just really makes me happy to see I can do for others,” McNutt said. “The best kind of love is when you can help others. It’s just nice to be able to help them out, even doing the smallest things for them.”
It’s that mindset that impresses the adults charged with leading the teens. Jeff Conner, of Falls Church, said that the crews are matched up with contractors based on the level of work needed on a home. Each crew consists of five or six teens and an adult leader. Three crews were dispatched to Culpeper and it was like watching a swarm of bees converge over the projects – busily digging with post hole diggers for the foundation to the deck.
“It’s inspiring to see the level of enthusiasm the kids have,” Conner said.
He said that the mantra of WorkCamp is to “make homes, warmer, safer and drier.” He said that both the teens and the homeowner benefits from from the experience.
“I would say it’s very important for both those audiences,” Conner said. “For the kids participating, it’s a great opportunity for them to understand the opportunity to serve others. For the residents, we hope that it helps improve their lives a little bit.”
Father Joseph Farrell, parochial vicar from Our Lady of Hope in Potomac Falls, said that when he was a teen, he didn’t participate in anything like this.
“I wish I had been,” Farrell said. “I discovered my vocation after coming back to the church in my 20s. The hope is to get these kids engaged so they don’t spend that time away. My goal would be to give them that inspiration now, to make their faith their own.”
The teens raised more than $500 each to be able to have the opportunity to participate in WorkCamp and that money is donated to the projects they work on.
Farrell said that the diocese is working to connect the teens more with charitable projects closer to home.
“The Catholic church is the largest charitable organization in the world,” Farrell said. “So we have missions all around the world. We tend to focus a lot of our efforts in other parts of the world. But now we see the value of getting kids involved in the local community. Especially in Northern Virginia, I don’t think a lot of the kids realize there is poverty not far from where they are. They don’t have to go very far to do mission work, and that stays with them.”
For Scott Kilmer, 19, of Arlington who will be attending William and Mary in the fall, this project has already brought him closer to God.
Part of that connection, he joked, was because the teens were without phones or other electronics during the week.
“I’ve always believed to God, but definitely more this week,” Kilmer said. “It’s going to sound corny, but there have been little moments this week where God is looking out for me. I just wanted to come here and make a real difference in someone’s life.”