Javier Garcia pushes a wheelbarrow during a summer service work camp in Racine. (Submitted photo)

In June, youth from the Catholic Community in Central Racine, comprising St. Richard, St. Edward and St. Patrick parishes, hosted their first summer service camp in Racine.

In previous years, the Catholic Community youth would travel to other communities for mission work, but this year, due to the pandemic restrictions, Fr. Juan Manuel Camacho, administrator of the Community, decided to work within their city.

“I told my youth minister, Eloy Contreras, that we need to do something to get children and others excited,” Fr. Camacho said. “We decided to do things in place to help heal the city.”

Fr. Camacho and Contreras partnered with the Racine Revitalization Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving neighborhoods that have suffered years of disinvestment and neglect.

“They came to us, and as we were talking with them, we learned they wanted to repair homes, and we thought we could get volunteers and children to help — it was really the Holy Spirit as we knew this is what God wanted us to do,” Fr. Camacho said.

Sixty-three students assisted at the weeklong camp, where they logged 2,166 volunteer hours. Attending Vacation Bible School were 32 children hosted by the ACTS Ministry, the Catholic Community’s youth group.

“The majority of the 95 children were from a parish in the Catholic Community as well as a few other parishes in the city,” said Fr. Camacho. “In addition to VBS, we did home restoration, painting and refurbishing homes. We painted a full house, had volunteers at the Hospitality Center, Hope Center and non-profits in town. We also rebuilt a porch.”

Additionally, according to Dulce Contreras, 16, Eloy’s daughter, the student volunteers were divided into a middle school group and a high school group. The younger students volunteered with St. Vincent de Paul and VBS, and did some gardening. The older students worked on construction and painting.

“I worked on planning and putting prayers together, and also helped with the two groups,” said Dulce. “Everyone was so happy we were helping out. At a couple of the house sites, the homeowners brought water; others came and dropped off Gatorade and water to the kids.”

Billed initially as a Hispanic Service Camp, the group drew in a diverse group of Hispanics, African Americans and Caucasian families.  Each day began at 8 a.m. with prayer and an overview of the day. Students reported to the worksite at 8:30 a.m. and came together at 3 p.m. for games, activities and reflection.

“We also had speakers come and talk to us from all over,” said Dulce. “On one of the days, we had Fr. Mike Wolf, a priest from Bolivia, talk to us on a Zoom call.”

For Dulce, the service camp was an opportunity to explore her calling to work with kids in ministry.

“Once I am older, I want to go into ministry and work with kids. I love to see the smiles on kids’ faces and the optimism that comes after a long day of work,” she said. “My faith has always been strong, and I always push love for God to others. I put faith next to my family — this week made it stronger. It made me realize we are all on a different path but have the same faith.”

Fr. Camacho said he plans to hold another week-long work camp again next summer in the city.

“It is very important to have the children support their own community, and I also think that more parents are willing to send their children on a mission trip when it is a local, and they can pick them up every night,” he said. “The cost was much less, too. We had children pay $20 to sign up. They got a T-shirt and it was just more doable for families than having to fundraise for the bigger mission trips.”

While he enjoyed working alongside the children, painting, refurbishing homes and rebuilding the porch, Fr. Camacho said he appreciated the diversity of the volunteers even more.

“I loved that we had African Americans, Hispanics and Anglos working side by side, building bridges between the different cultures, and in the inner city, where so many are marginalized,” he said. “This was fruitful for all. We made noise. We made the Church present in the neighborhood where I worked in my collar with the kids. This work camp was one of the things I wanted to do with our parishes. I want people to see us outside the walls of the church and see the presence of the Catholic Church outdoors.”