While most college students were finishing up finals and preparing for summer vacation, 30 Catholic students and chaperones brought the Year of Mercy message to Appalachia.
“I met representatives of ASP (Appalachia Service Project) while attending the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis in November of 2015 and was very impressed with their mission and their organization,” said Liz Tingquist, director of the Diocese of Little Rock Catholic Youth and Campus Ministry Office. This year, $20,000 was granted to the diocese through Catholic Home Missions, part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to sponsor a mission trip for Catholic college students for the Year of Mercy.
“So, when we were able to secure the grant, I knew this was the organization I wanted to work with … (it’s) a different experience for our college students,” Tingquist said.
From May 15-21, students from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, University of Arkansas in Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway went to the ASP in Chavies, Ky. According to its website, asphome.org, ASP seeks to “provide one of the most rewarding and structured service opportunities in the nation — bringing together thousands of volunteers from around the country to rural central Appalachia to repair homes for low-income families.”
Clare Doss, a senior interdisciplinary studies major at A-State from Berryville, said she was filled with doubt when they first arrived.
“I walked in and believed that there was no way we would get everything done that we were asked to do,” she said, “but we came together as a group and did the flooring in not only the two rooms we were supposed to, but in an extra room as well. Seeing the joy on the homeowner’s face was the most meaningful moment for me.”
According to the grant proposal, the goals of the diocese concerning the Year of Mercy grant were “for campus ministry students to return home with passion for service, renewed compassion for other people and a fresh appreciation for their place and purpose in the world as Catholics.”
Sister Mary Clare Bezner, OSB, vocations director at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, who accompanied the students, was moved by the gratitude they received from the homeowners they helped.
“One lady wanted to give something back to us so badly, and all she had to give was prayer,” Sister Mary Clare said. “She sang us an old hymn about seeing us in heaven one day. It was so beautiful. I have a recording of it and I watch it every day.”
Some of the projects the group worked on were fixing floors and roofs as well as emergency repairs. Caitlyn Barthol, a senior biology major at UCA from Little Rock, said this mission trip, her first, has given her a desire to help people in her community.
“I’ve been so blessed with everything I have, that I want to be able to give back to others,” Barthol said. “One of the ladies showed us around her house. She also showed us a gift from a different group of volunteers, and told us that we were all her earth angels. I thought it was amazing that we weren’t just repairing their houses; we were really getting to know them.”
Sam Johnson, a sophomore economics and accounting major at UA from Fayetteville, said the trip helped increase his faith.
“I felt like God really wanted this to happen. There was always someone who knew exactly what to do, and it always worked out, even when something went wrong,” he said. “The trip really increased the sense of Catholic community. There’s not a lot of Catholics in Fayetteville, so it’s always nice to be reminded of how strong the Catholic faith is.”
Doss said the experience was so meaningful that she would “absolutely go back in a heartbeat.”
“After learning more about ASP, I’m very intrigued by the idea of spending an entire summer working there and continuing to give back,” she said.
Though each person from the trip worked hard, Sister Mary Clare said God was the one guiding their every move.
“All of the prayers that week were about service to others, and it felt like God had designed them exactly for that week.” Sister Mary Clare said. “Every moment felt like you were walking exactly the way Jesus wanted you to walk.”
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