It’s rare that Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High School in Delaware County is occupied by young people around the clock.
But in late June Bonner-Prendie hosted about 275 high school and college students who were participating in the weeklong Catholic Heart Workcamp. The student volunteers traveled to Drexel Hill from Georgia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware. Then, they were sent out in groups to do service projects at work sites around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“They slept in the classrooms, believe it or not,” John E. Cooke, President of Bonner-Prendie said. “The third floor was all boys, and the second floor was all girls. The camp staff were spread out throughout the building.”
Catholic Heart Workcamp was founded in 1993 in Orlando, Florida, by Steve and Lisa Walker who were serving as youth ministers at St. Margaret Mary Church in Winter Park, Florida, at that time. Catholic Heart Workcamp offers youth-friendly, Catholic short-term mission trips, and it now has over 50 locations around the world. This was the first time a camp was offered in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Suzi Ulmer, an alumna of Archbishop Prendergast High School, her niece, Terri Powers, an alumna of Cardinal O’Hara High School, and Father Paul Castellani, pastor of St. Philomena Parish, were instrumental in bringing the camp program to the Archdiocese.
After Father Castellani became pastor at St. Philomena, Ulmer said he introduced Catholic Heart Workcamp to the teenagers in the parish and encouraged them to participate each summer.
Ulmer, who has volunteered with the camp program for about 13 years, said most of the camps she has participated in were located along the East Coast.
“We’ve been to Toms River [New Jersey] a year after Hurricane Sandy, and we went to Providence, Rhode Island, Roanoke, Virginia, and Virginia Beach,” Ulmer said. “The teenagers love it, and most of them come back year after year.”
She explained that the work sites throughout the Archdiocese included various Catholic Social Services programs including St. Katharine Drexel School in Bensalem; Martha’s Community Farm in Audubon; The Communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence; and numerous sites serving seniors such as Star Harbor Senior Center in South Philly; Nativity B.V.M. Senior Center in Port Richmond; and St. Francis Villa, an affordable housing community for seniors located in Kensington.
St. Laurence School in Upper Darby, Holy Cross Parish in Springfield, Little Flower Manor in Darby, and St. Philomena Parish also served as work sites for volunteers.
A group of about 25 volunteers spent three days painting classrooms at St. Katharine Drexel School, part of Catholic Social Services’ Saint Francis & Saint Vincent Homes in Bensalem that serves dependent and delinquent youth.
“They did a superb job,” said Terrance Hudson, principal of the school. “I enjoyed their teamwork and their efforts to paint our classroom walls. We were looking for someone to paint our classrooms, so this was a perfect opportunity for us to connect with the camp.”
The volunteers painted eight classrooms as well as two rooms in an administration building on campus, according to Hudson.
“The camp was a great opportunity for youth to celebrate and recognize themselves as positive individuals in society,” he said. “I think it was a pleasure for them to come into an environment they weren’t familiar with, and they learned that volunteering can be rewarding in itself.”
Hudson added that he and his staff enjoyed interacting with the volunteers.
“Most of the campers came from various states, and it was an education for my staff and myself to learn a little bit more about the camp and also the campers themselves,” he said. “They also were able to get familiar with my staff members to see what our program is like compared to the schools they came from.”
Plans have been tentatively set for the Catholic Heart Workcamp to return to Bonner-Prendie next summer.
“We invited them back next year because they were great tenants,” Cooke said. “We haven’t made it official yet, but they’re most likely coming back.”
Cooke and Ulmer noted that young people have the opportunity to gain valuable experience through service opportunities such as Catholic HeartWork camp.
“I used to work at Drexel University and I oversaw the alternative spring break program there, which is very similar [to this camp],” Cooke said. “It’s just a great experience, not just for giving back to the community, but for a group of people to bond.”
Ulmer agrees noting that the volunteer work is “a learning experience and an opportunity for them to grow.”
“I always tell the children, ‘You can put this on your resume when you’re going to college. You can put this on your resume when you’re getting a job because this is something that not everybody does.'”
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