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Shea Block, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul youth group at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in House Springs, smiled as she distributed notebooks for students of low-income families.
Shea Block, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul youth group at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in House Springs, smiled as she distributed notebooks for students of low-income families.

‘This is God’s will to help others’

Youth group serves cohorts at Jefferson County back-to-school fair

Anticipation built in and around the Jefferson College Field House in Hillsboro on the morning of July 26.

Outside, about 100 elementary and high school students from low-income families lined up and anxiously awaited the doors to open for the annual Jefferson County Health and Education Fair, the back-to-school extravaganza at which they gather school supplies for the coming academic year and receive essential services and health screenings — all free of charge.

Inside, more than 100 volunteers — mostly adults, but also 11 members of the St. Vincent de Paul youth at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in House Springs — anxiously awaited meeting them and fulfilling their back-to-school needs.

“It feels good to help people in need,” said Alyssa Grosvenor, 12, who will be in seventh grade at the parish school. “This is God’s will to help others.”

The service was especially poignant, too.

“This project is really cool because we get to help kids that are our age,” said Nicole Adams, 18, an incoming freshman at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. “A lot of the projects we do, we don’t get to interact with them; we’re just raising money for (other) groups to do what they do.

“This is the one where we actually get to work face-to-face with them.”

The face-to-face work lasted for four hours and was at the hub of the fair — literally and figuratively.

Gage Poskin, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul youth group at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in House Springs volunteered to distribute folders for students on July 26 at the Back-to- School Fair at Jefferson County College.
In a literal sense, the St. Vincent de Paul youth occupied the station in the center of Field House gym, 16 folding tables organized in about a 40-by-40-foot square. There, students picked up all manner of supplies for the coming year — backpacks, binders, folders, notebooks, paper, scissors, rulers, pens, pencils and markers.

In a figurative sense, the young Vincentians, through the supplies, were “helping kids get the best education they can,” said Emma Robinson, 15, adding that the service was “rewarding. … It’s a powerful experience to see exactly how it impacts their lives.”

About 650 students from low-income families and backgrounds attended the fair, hosted annually by the Jefferson County Health and Education Committee. Screenings and referrals for hearing, vision, dental, health and wellness were also available, along with haircuts, books, snacks and lunch as well information about school lunch programs, insurance and more. All at no cost for the students and families, who were verified in advance as living at a level below 125 percent of the poverty line, according to Father James T. Beighlie, CM, associate pastor at the House Springs parish and moderator of the young Vincentians.

Several Catholic agencies were among the three-dozen vendors supplying free services or information, including Saint Louis Counseling, Birthright of Hillsboro, St. Louis Crisis Nursery, Mercy Hospital and St. Patrick Center. The group from Our Lady Queen of Peace raised money through collections at the parish, donated the funds to the education committee for the fair, then volunteered to work it.

The volunteer service allows them to see first-hand the real needs of their cohorts, which they’ve discovered — through their participation in St. Vincent de Paul — is as commonplace in rural areas such as Jefferson County as in metropolitan areas such as St. Louis.

“We know there’s a lot of that in the city, but it’s out here, too,” said Amanda Kohne, 16, a rising sophomore at Ursuline Academy in Kirkwood. “I was really surprised to find that out.”

Same with Adams: “I was totally shocked. I had no idea.”

The eye-opening experience strikes closer to home than they realized. Young Vincentians attending the high school in Northwest R-1 School District, near House Springs, see it every day. According to the Jefferson County Homeless Youth Initiative, the Northwest District has 150-180 high school teenagers per year that aren’t living with their parents.

“That’s the highest number of kids at any school in Jefferson County,” Father Beighlie said. Those students may be living with relatives or friends, couch surfing or “camping in the woods, completely on their own.”

“We know them because they want to finish high school,” said Father Beighlie, adding that the young Vincentians raise money to fund department store gift cards and gas cards to give them at Christmas time. “It’s right in our backyard. At the back-to-school fair, they might know some of the kids coming through the line.”

The experience makes them understanding and non-judgmental.

“Anyone can be in this situation,” said Maggie Hardesty, 14. “You really don’t know what they’re going through.”

Except for at the back-to-school fair. The students from low-income families generally wore smiles and expressed gratitude as they stocked up for school, even without prompting.

“It really nice to hear little kids say ‘thank you’ without their parents telling them to,” said Alyssa Block, 18, who will be a freshman this year at Jefferson College. “They’re really thankful. It’s really neat to see them get what they need.”

With a backpack filled with school supplies slung over her shoulder, Natalie Kostecki was effusive in her praise for the fair, exclaiming, simply, “I love it!”

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