This week, the hallways at Villa Duchesne Oak Hill were jammed mostly with fresh-faced enthusiastic teen agers. Some 370 youngsters, counting their adult chaperones have descended upon St. Louis like locusts at harvest time.
These young people are doing Gods work, one project at a time. Their instruments of help are hammers and nails; paint brushes and rakes.
Each morning, the students gather for instructions, then head out to disadvantaged parts of St. Louis to clean up and fix up homes and institutions, making a difference in their own personal ways.
They are part of a bigger program: Catholic Heart Workcamp. The brain child of Parish Youth Ministers Steve and Lisa Walker, Orlando, FL, in 1993, Catholic Heart Workcamp gathers in different cities each summer to share the love of Jesus and serve the neglected, broken hearted and marginalized in dire need.
They bring hope to those with the greatest need and have so little to share.
Working in oppressive 100 plus heat doesn’t make the task any easier.
Students come from near and far. The t-shirts identify students from midwestern communities like Comstock Park, MI; Topeka, KS, Indianapolis, IN, Port Washington, WI and may places in-between.
For the young participants, there’s a time for socialization too. Heart Workcamp provides three meals a day, including a packed lunch for the field. One particular night, the main entree was chicken pot pies.
South St. Louisan Maureen “Mo” Ragsdale, proud 1977 graduate of St. Elizabeth’s Academy is the project director. She’s been doing this a dozen years, her own children attend the camp and she takes the better part of six months to prepare for this one-week operation, based out of Villa.
Ragsdale works at Wells Fargo Advisors in Frontenac for one of the company’s vice presidents Gilbert Bickel. Bickel, who had a faith conversion to the Catholic religion after being struck by lightening on the golf course in Colorado sent five daughters to Villa. Not only a donor to the school, and former board member, he supports Ragsdale in her efforts.
“We are kind of a Habitat for Humanity for young people. We don’t build houses per say, but we fix them up and repair them and clean them,” said Ragsdale.
“We actually have participants at all kinds of ages. They are as young as 12 and we have a 72-year-old volunteer. Many college-age students are part of the group,” she said.
The project ran Sunday through Thursday, with Friday an open date for sight-seeing in St. Louis. The students sleep on air mattresses in classrooms, spread throughout the school building. Fortunately, air conditioning was added to the school recently.
“You’d be amazed how I can squeeze 25 girls with their air mattresses into one classroom. I show them how they can fill up the space and find somewhere else for their hair dryers.”
Students do attend daily mass and have Reconciliation at 8:15 p.m. before heading off to sleep.
“We have 18 different youth groups from all over the Midwest coming together for this project. We make sure they mix and meet all kinds of new people. We insist that when they get on the bus to head to their work, they sit with a new person. It is simply a leap of faith for many of them,” said Ragsdale.
By the end of the week, parts of St. Louis, where the needs are the greatest are cleaner, fresher and better off. This truly is Gods work done by students proudly wearing tool belts as a sign of their trade.