Immaculate Conception Work Camp builds leaders in St. Marys

Peter Bordelon, center, gathers all the tools for the day’s work while Alice Bertels, left, and Rebecca Fiedler, right, discuss the schedule with him. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Olivia Martin
olivia.martin@theleaven.org

ST. MARYS — The harvest was abundant and the laborers were . . . plentiful!

That is, at the first-ever Immaculate Conception Work Camp (ICWC).

From July 5 to 11, 40 local high school students gathered at Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Marys to perform acts of service from yardwork to meal delivery to painting.

Inspired by faith-based summer camps like Catholic HEART Workcamp and Prayer and Action, ICWC presents an opportunity for students to perform acts of service in preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, build useful skills, and deepen their relationships and faith.

But unlike Prayer and Action, ICWC is organized and run entirely by 12 high school students. And it plans on staying that way.

A unique setting

When the director of religious education of Immaculate Conception looked out over the youth of the parish some two years ago, she knew they were capable of greatness.

But Alice Bordelon was also looking for the perfect opportunity to help form those students into leaders.

She started off with a group of 12 students — the “teen panel” — who wound up designing a prayer and work camp that they piloted this month.

It was the teens themselves that set the agenda: Participants attended daily Mass, prayed the rosary and worked at their various sites until early afternoon, then paused for lunch. Afterwards, they enjoyed a three-hour break to go home and relax before returning to the church to listen to visiting speakers from around the archdiocese and say night prayer together.

Organizing it all was quite a  challenge — but one that the teen panel was definitely up to.

“The teen panel is incredible,” said Bordelon. “[They are] in charge of media, the garage, the kitchen, running [tools and supplies] back and forth to work sites — everything.  

“They’re thinking on their own.”

The experience as a teen panel member and music ministry leader has shown Theresa Bordelon that she’s more capable than she thought.

“This was my first time kind of singing alone,” said Theresa. “I learned to be more confident in myself and direct with other people.”

And it’s clear to her mother that ICWC is just the beginning for these students.

“My hope is they will eventually take over leadership roles within the parish,” said Bordelon. “Someone is going to have to run our finance committee, our parish council . . . and be the DRE. I have a feeling they are going to come from this panel!”

Plentiful harvest

One of the first things the teen panel had to do in preparation for the camp was determine who in the community they would serve. So, applications were created and distributed to identify who might need their help.

“The team then reviewed the applications to see how much time and how many people it would take and decide if that was a job they could tackle,” said Dona Ratliff, an ICWC chaperone.

“It’s been really exciting to see their leadership skills develop,” she said.

For example, one project they decided to undertake was cleaning up Riverside Park, so the city didn’t have to. Another was taking care of Bernard Fiedler’s yard.

In recent years, Fiedler has experienced multiple medical hardships and surgeries, making simple outdoor tasks impossible. 

So, when he saw the ICWC applications in the back of church, he figured: Why not?

“I thought about three to five young people were going to come up and work on my yard,” said Fiedler. “But then, about eight showed up!”

The participants trimmed trees, cleared flower beds and ended up covered in mud, which surprised Fiedler.

“I had no idea they were going to be this aggressive,” he said. “They are an asset to the parish and the community. They’re not kids; they’re young adults!”

For Shane Herrington, a rising freshman, helping Fiedler was worth every fleck of mud.

“It was great because he was just so appreciative,” said Shane. “If [Christ] was here, he’d be doing this same work himself.

“Doing [this] work brings his presence here.”

Immaculate Conception parishioner Jerry Pearl also received help with his yard.

After a severe fall resulting in a brain injury at 86 years old last summer, Pearl finds himself unable to do any sort of labor.

“He was a farmer and rancher and did everything for himself,” said Michelle Martin, Pearl’s daughter. “The hardest part for him was probably not being able to direct everybody.”

Martin’s guess was spot on.

“I wish I was able to be out there with them,” said Pearl. “They had a pretty good attitude.”

For Ratliff, one of the distinct beauties of the camp is the fact that it is entirely local.

“We really saw a calling to get our youth tied into our [community], get to know people here and see where we can give back,” she said. “We have a great community.”

Riley Stallbaumer, a rising sophomore, agreed.

“I like having the [ICWC] in our community,” she said. “I get to know the people and will [interact] with them for a while, [whereas] when I go to Prayer and Action, I never see them again.

“Now I can see [these people] at church; we see that connection.”

The students are not the only ones who have learned from the experience, however. 

“I’m understanding that if I invite Christ into my life and work, he will do the rest,” said Bordelon. “Learning that trust has been such a gift.”

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