by Dean Backes
Special to The Leaven
EMPORIA — Much like the two and a half dozen other Prayer and Action campers traveling around town here this week, Oliver Sheeley and his team of five boys and three girls were toiling in the hot sun so others don’t have to.
It’s all part of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas’ plan to offer low-cost mission experiences to area youth, allowing them to come together to serve their neighbors and to fall deeper in love with Jesus Christ.
Sheeley, who will be a freshman at Northern Heights High School in Allen this fall and is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, enjoyed the company of other young Catholic men and women and the constant prayer during his mid-June camp so much, he signed up for the season’s final outing in late July.
“It’s just really nice because you feel like you’re actually doing something rather than saying, ‘Oh, I should be doing something,’” Sheeley said, as he and his team were preparing to weed the garden of a resident one Tuesday morning. “And it just makes you really happy and excited to do it again.”
Rock Creek High School junior Brooklyn Plummer from St. George also worked the mid-June camp. Her experience was similar to that of Sheeley.
“Oh my gosh, it was amazing,” said Plummer, who belongs to St. Columbkille Parish in Blaine. “I’ve been thinking about how to put it into words. But it’s just the feeling that you get at the end of each week. Just watching the grace of God go through everybody — that was so beautiful.”
Seminarians from the Diocese of Salina founded Prayer and Action (PANDA) some years ago. Now, Kansas City, Wichita and Denver also offer PANDA missions to the youth of their communities.
Following Mass, a hot, hearty breakfast and a work shift that typically runs from 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. three to four days a week, campers head back to their quarters where they’re served dinner, get some free time and participate in the fun-and-games part of the mission.
Essential to PANDA is a daily Mass and rosary, works of charity in the community, praise and worship, eucharistic adoration, meditation and contemplation, reconciliation, Liturgy of the Hours, small group discussion, dialogue with seminarians, religious and other adults, and silent reflection.
Deacon Bill Scholl of Our Lady & St. Rose Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, and the archdiocesan consultant for social justice, said campers aren’t just doing a job, they’re also being a witness and serving Christ. He went on to say that in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds us that when we serve those in need, we’re serving him.
“Often, in the life of a Christian, we discover that we show up thinking we’re going to serve and we’re going to help,” Scholl said. “But then the Lord turns it around on us and we have this amazing conversation in which we encounter the Holy Spirit, and we walk away going, ‘Wow, I don’t know how much good I did for the other person — I sure hope I did — but God has really done something in me.’
“We’re hoping the young people have those kinds of encounters so that they realize Christian life is not just one of showing up at Mass. It’s not just one of study. It’s also one of doing.”
PANDA, which serves a different community every summer, offered mission trips to Emporia throughout June and most of July. High school students typically help their assigned resident with yardwork, scraping, painting, cleaning, minor repairs, working at food kitchens, sorting mail and so much more.
PANDA isn’t the only organization in the archdiocese that enables young people to serve others in need. Catholic Heart Workcamps (CHWC) will be celebrating 30 years of service next summer. While PANDA prefers to serve others in their own backyard, CHWC has gone national, bringing in hundreds of campers each week and often signing up high school students from multiple states.
Sandra and Sarah Fleissner, a mother/daughter duo from Omaha, Nebraska, have been pulling double-duty by running camps in both Omaha and Kansas City since 2016. Sarah Fleissner, who never attended CHWC as a camper, has been helping her mother manage camps since she was 12 years old.
“We have been fortunate to meet every person that we’ve provided services for,” Sarah said of the team that started managing Omaha’s CHWC organization in 2008. “That means coming down one or two weekends before camp starts and knocking on as many as 30 homes in a day. We quickly meet people, but also spend enough time with them so we can get their story.”
The Fleissners also received some assistance from Mary Smith, a resident of the historic Westheight neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, who played the role of liaison between her neighbors and the Fleissners. Smith’s hard work made it possible for neighbors like Roderick Bettis and Susan Allen to get the help they needed.
During many visits to the residences that were being served, Smith said she never saw anyone slacking and that she has always been impressed with the campers’ desires to finish as many projects as possible.
“A couple of my neighbors just thanked me and said, ‘I feel so much better now that my yard looks nice,’” said Smith. “We want them to feel good about their yard and themselves.”
Bettis, 66, who is retired after running his own printing company for 30 years, was impressed with the work ethic of the campers that helped with his yardwork.
“Those kids. They were awesome. I can’t say enough about how they cooperated,” Bettis said. “They went above and beyond and never complained. And they had fun doing what they did.”
Allen, 76, a retired journalist, said her experience was similar.
“They had a great spirit,” she said. “And they were willing to help. When they were finished with one task, they asked if I had something else that needed to be done. They were so willing and able to do the work.
“I like it that these kids are learning different things about housework and yardwork. And I would like to think that I contributed to that.”