Mildred Anderson’s home stands out among a row of tidy brick homes in the Baden neighborhood in St. Louis. A manicured lawn and porch lined with potted plants has the kind of curb appeal you’d find in a magazine. Anderson has lived in this house for decades, but after the passing of her husband three years ago, she’s maintained the yard work mostly on her own.
Last week, three teens on a weeklong service retreat showed up at her house, lawn bags and paint brushes in hand. They were there to clean up some brush that had grown over from her neighbor’s yard along her back fence line and put a fresh coat of white paint on the wrought iron fence in her back yard and railing on the front porch.
“Is this my yard?” Anderson asked in amazement as she surveyed the work.
It’s that kind of joyful reaction that makes Project Life worthwhile for Caitlin Struckhoff, who is a repeat participant in the summer service retreat, organized by the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry. “Doing the service can be really hard work, but doing it with a group of people makes it a joy,” said the incoming junior at Cor Jesu Academy. “And it’s great to see people’s reactions with the outcome. You feel like you’re really helping people in the community.”
More than 100 teens and young adults, adult chaperones and other staff and volunteers spent the week of June 2-7 camped out at Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis County. They worked six-hour days on service projects all over St. Louis, including home repairs, sandbagging areas affected by flooding, outdoor work at Bellefontaine Neighbors Recreation Center, attending a pro-life rally in front of Planned Parenthood, cleaning up at Christ Light of the Nations School, working at St. Agnes Home, helping at food pantries and working at other nonprofit community organizations.
In the evenings, they listened to inspirational talks based on this year’s theme “United” (from Philippians 2), participated in the sacraments and spent time in faith sharing and fellowship. The week was an invitation for them to be transformed by the Gospel call to love others through service to those in need.
Much of the discussion focused on being united through the heart of Christ and with one another and the community they served during the week, said Tom Lancia, director of the Office of Youth Ministry. “I pray that they grow in a deeper relationship with Christ and recognize Him in our brothers and sisters in our community,” Lancia said. “I also pray that they keep a heart of service throughout their life.”
Two doors down from Mildred Anderson, another group was cleaning brush from Jeanne Anderson’s back yard. She was waiting outside when they arrived, and they prayed together before they started their work. “I’m so blessed to have you guys helping,” Jeanne Anderson told them. “Thank you for your service — I mean the service that the Lord allows all of you to give.”
Kyle Hannan, a recent SLUH graduate, has attended Project Life all four years of high school. “I survived all four years of Project Life without getting poison ivy,” he joked as the tore through brush in Anderson’s back yard. “So I think I’m immune.”
Bugs and bumps and bruises aside, Hannan, who will attend Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. in the fall, said Project Life is the best week of summer. “There’s nothing like helping people,” he said. “I especially like seeing the before and after, and seeing people so happy afterward. It’s seriously what brings me back. This is what I came here for.”
Elsewhere in Baden, another group worked at Mark Topolski’s house. They made repairs to a ceiling, gave several rooms a fresh coat of paint and did some major cleanup work in the back yard. Earlier in the week Deacon Matt Duban, who was working with the teens, brought Communion to Topolski, who’s been unable to get around much after a leg injury.
The group also cut the grass at another house, but then discovered the family living there had a major clog in the kitchen sink and had been unable to properly clean the dishes for the better part of a year. They rented a drain cleaner at a local home improvement store and got the job done.
“They were really happy to be able to have their dishes done again,” said Noah Diffley, a senior at Rockwood Summit High School and member of Sacred Heart in Valley Park.
The bonds they made with those they served will have the biggest impact, said Lydia Lehmbeck, an incoming junior at Fort Zumwalt West and parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie. At the house where they unclogged the drain, the teens got to know the children, learning their dance moves and dreams to have a YouTube channel someday.
“We all had never really met each other until Sunday night, but we’ve grown really close,” she said. “Service has the power to do that — people that we don’t know and just met, we’ve become so close with.”