When Meg Aspinwall started working for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Feb. 1, she had to hit the ground running.
Preparations were already well underway for Love Begins Here, a local mission trip experience for middle school and high school students during the summer.
Aspinwall, the Associate Director of Evangelization and Catechesis for Youth, had to start coordinating for the four-week program that ran from late June into July, including contacting host parishes and volunteers, and setting up projects for the teens who would be going on the experience a few months later.
However, the concept wasn’t foreign for Aspinwall, who had been involved with Love Begins Here since 2011 in the Diocese of Madison, where it was started by Lindsay Finn in 2009.
The local mission trips are “rooted in the beautiful sacramental life of the Catholic Church, but also encourages and equips (participants) to serve their neighbor in whatever capacity that means,” Aspinwall said.
Some of the projects the students do during their week with Love Begins Here include weeding, cleaning windows, cleaning a car, rearranging a garage, simple tasks around the house, or even just being present with an elderly person who needs the ministry of presence.
Doug Ulaszek, currently the Associate Director for Evangelization and Catechesis for Adult and Family for the archdiocese, started the program here in 2021 and served as the director for its first two iterations.
The parishes that host the teens find the projects for them to do and contact groups that can be served. Parishes that bring teens to serve the missions provide adults to supervise and drive. The teens are split into “car groups” with teens from other parishes.
“It’s really fun to see these kids from different schools, communities, parishes come together and just develop really beautiful friendships,” Aspinwall said.
This past summer, there were 138 teens involved over the four weeks — who were hosted at St. Elizabeth, Kenosha; St. Charles, Burlington; St. Mary, Waukesha; and St. Katharine Drexel, Beaver Dam — as well as 41 adults.
The students who participate range from the hard-chargers who are heavily involved at their parishes to teens who never serve.
“We get all kinds,” Aspinwall said. “It runs the gamut. We have kids whose families are super active in the domestic Church and praying as a family, and others who say, ‘Well, my mom told me I needed to come, so here I am.’ Some are really excited; some aren’t. Usually by the middle of the week for high schoolers, or the end of that first full day for middle schoolers, there’s a pretty noticeable switch. Part of it, too, is having them disconnected from all social media and phones. They don’t get to have that constant contact to everything. That takes a little bit of time, but once that happens, it’s awesome. It’s so cool.”
While there were no “unusual” projects that were asked of the teens this year, there was a group of middle schoolers during the week in Waukesha that was able to serve in an assisted living facility, and they ended up doing manicures and pedicures with the residents.
The mission week for high schoolers is six days, running from around 5 p.m. Sunday until noon Friday, while the middle schoolers stay until Wednesday.
The service days usually run 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and every day begins with Mass, based on the host parish’s daily Mass schedule. Once the workday is done, the group heads to a pool or beach to swim before returning for the evening programming.
The evenings in the host parishes include praying the Rosary, dinner and what is known as “Collatio” (coming together). The missionaries are guided through a daily examen and share highlights from their day. After Collatio, they spend a few minutes in silent prayer before ending the night with parish time. The evening talks this year were based on the book “Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire” by Jonathan Langford.
“Everything we do is modeled after St. Theresa of Calcutta and her work with the Missionaries of Charity, how love begins at home,” Aspinwall said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. There are people here in our backyard who need help, and that’s what we’re all about.”
For now, Aspinwall doesn’t have lofty goals of adding weeks or anything similar; she is just looking to spread awareness throughout the archdiocese among pastors and youth ministers.
Registration for teens begins in January and usually closes in April and May. Aspinwall said she will likely finalize the host sites for the summer of 2024 by October.
So, what was Aspinwall’s takeaway after her first summer working with teens in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee?
“We have a lot of phenomenal kids in this archdiocese,” Aspinwall said.