Teens from across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee pose for a group photo in front of Sacred Heart School in Fond du Lac. Holy Family Parish was one of five host sites around the Archdiocese this summer for Love Begins Here. (Submitted photo)

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Love Begins Here program recently wrapped up a successful first year of performing service projects throughout Wisconsin. The missionary program for middle and high school-age teens was supposed to start in 2020, but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even this year, it was a big struggle, as we weren’t sure we would be able to do it,” said Doug Ulaszek, associate director of youth evangelization who led the program. “We had only six months to plan everything. But I am so glad it happened.”

Taking inspiration and guidance from St. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, the Love Begins Here program, began in the Diocese of Madison in 2009. It invites teens to “encounter Jesus Christ in a life-changing way,” through weeklong mission trips to assist local communities through various service projects.

During the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s five-week summer program, 138 middle and high school missionaries and 47 adults traveled to one of five host parishes: Holy Family in Fond du Lac, St. Thomas in Waterford, St. Elizabeth in Kenosha, Holy Trinity in Kewaskum, and St. Mary in Menomonee Falls.

Love Begins Here has three pillars or components of the program: Work Hard, Pray Hard and Play Hard, or prayer, service and community, said Ulaszek.

“We start the day with Mass or a rosary,” he said. “This year, because of the pandemic, we focused on outdoor work, but in future summers, we want to partner with assisted living and nursing homes. Yard work is great, but what people need is relationship and love; they are starved for it.”

While homeowners asked for gardening, yard work and lawn care help, the most crucial aspect of this mission trip was building relationships, focusing on individuals and listening to stories on front porches.

“We did have some groups that partnered with community organizations and helped out with playing games with residents at adult daycare centers and doing arts and crafts with clients,” Ulaszek said. “We also had a fair amount of work in cemeteries, cleaning headstones and doing maintenance around the gravesites. We did a lot of work at St. George Cemetery in Kenosha. We also went into the schools, did painting and other tasks, and moved things around for classes.”

While many mission trips focus on working abroad or in other parts of the country, Love Begins Here is designed to help those in the greater community and that’s just fine for Sylvan Millevolte.

“Serving your closest neighbor is no different in the eyes of God than serving someone halfway across the world,” said the high school missionary from St. Charles, Hartland.

At each host parish, students and parent missionaries spent the night in parish school buildings, sleeping on air mattresses and eating simple fare for breakfast and lunch, and slightly more elaborate meals for their dinners.

“They enjoyed barbecued chicken, gyros (and) mac and cheese, which was a top-rated recipe that week, and other good meals. They were well-fed, which was important because they worked hard,” Ulaszek said.

“I really think I was able to revive my prayer life and had a lot of fun with my friends and the others I got to meet and serve with, which was rewarding,” said Emily, a high school missionary from St. Jerome, Oconomowoc.

Ruby Scheuing from St. Pius X, Wauwatosa, agreed, adding that the program made her a better person.

“It also made me see that keeping your kindness and heart inside and not expressing yourself is not a good thing,” said the middle school missionary.

Thanks to a grant from the Archdiocese’s Faith in Our Future Trust, the mission trip was affordable for the students. Ulaszek said the cost was $120 for middle schoolers and $150 for high school students for the week, including meals and transportation.

Students and adults logged 3,388 hours of service within the archdiocese, with 16 different parish groups and several teens participating from parishes around the Archdiocese.

Sarah Dasczcuk, director of youth ministry at Christ King, St. Bernard and St. Pius X, Wauwatosa, provided the opportunity to witness the young missionaries growing in prayer and self-sacrificial service.

“In my experience, most students sign up for a service trip because they value action — doing the things Jesus asks us to do — but many times, they are less comfortable being with Jesus or growing in holiness with him,” she said. “Love Begins Here provides the perfect blend of hands-on, tough work while teaching missionaries that we must first rely on the Holy Spirit to fill us up, inspire us, and to teach us how to truly love and serve. I am so grateful that Love Begins Here is in our own diocese so we can serve our neighbors and bring Christ’s light into our community.”