Thomas Hernandez, 12, left paints the side of a thrift store in Palm Springs as part of a project organized by St. Luke youth ministry leaders. Shown at his side is Nick Hanna, 14, and Sophia Hanna, 11, Nick’s sister. They belong to the youth ministry of St. Luke Parish. (PHOTOS BY LINDA REEVES | FC)

Youngsters reach out, help others in their community

PALM SPRINGS  |  Sully Sullivan knew both the youngsters from St. Luke youth ministry and a group of foreign exchange students could do more than wash cars and collect donations to help out a neighbor in need.

So with confidence, he distributed paint brushes and rollers and asked the young people to help him with a community service project that involved painting the entire exterior of Vita Nova thrift store.
“Today we are giving back,” explained Sullivan, St. Luke Parish director of religious education and youth ministry, as he spoke July 17 to the more than 20 young people involved in the major painting undertaking.

“You are only giving up one day, but you can make a big difference,” said Sullivan. “You will make the building more attractive and more visual, and people will come into the store and shop. What they purchase will help in the mission of Vita Nova.”

The thrift store is owned by Vita Nova, a nonprofit that provides housing, vocational training, education preparation and life-skill development opportunities to young adults 18-25 currently homeless or previously under foster care. In Florida, a youth “ages out” of the foster care systems at 18. Then teens are expected to assume independence, even if, as in many instances, they do not have a family or support system or life skills to successfully manage on their own.

Vita Nova thrift store, which opened in 2008, raises funds to benefit the organization’s ministry. The store also provides work for young people to gain hands-on experience and job-skills training.
Sandra R. Awong, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus, has been thrift store manager for the past nine years. She was delighted that Sullivan and his painting crew were eager to give the old faded thrift store a fresh look.

“It is so good that they wanted to do this,” she said. “It is an excellent project.”

Before the painting began, Awong gave the young people a tour of the store on Congress Avenue, just down the street from St. Luke Parish. The facility was filled with racks of nearly new clothing, shelves of books and household appliance and all sorts of home furnishing. She spoke a little about the young adults at Vita Nova at the heart of the outreach to give the youngsters a little knowledge about who was actually being assisted by their service.

“We currently have 25 people at Vita Nova,” she said. “We strive to reach out and help them all. We are trying to help them be independent so that they can live and make it.”

The St. Luke youngsters and the exchange students from Spain ranged from 12 to 15. Some of the students spoke little English, and very few of the youngsters had ever painted. Sullivan gave some tips, showed some techniques and gave some lessons.

Thomas Hernandez, 12, was assigned to a small corner of the building. He grew up at St. Luke Parish and School. He explained that doing service and it made him feel good knowing that his work was benefiting others. He also enjoyed working side by side with the 10 exchange students and sharing in outreach with them. “I am learning some Spanish,” he said.

Carolina Loezano, 15, was among the visiting students. She struggled to speak English, but was eager to try when we asked her a few questions. She explained she is impressed with the American culture and the people she has met at St. Luke. “I like the people,” she said. “They are nice, friendly and giving. They are very nice.”

The youth ministry at St. Luke is a fine example of the great youth ministry efforts going on in the Diocese of Palm Beach. St. Luke organized outreach and volunteer programs throughout the year, and encourages the youngsters to taking on roles as servers, lectors and ushers.

Each summer, exchange students visit the parish. “I collaborate with the organizers of this program to coordinate a day of community outreach or service,” Sullivan said. “Two years ago we painted the newly renovated St. Luke Family Life Center, now used daily for various ministries. Last July, we performed a gardening project to beautify the brand-new front entrance to St. Luke Catholic School.”

Sullivan said the July project to help Vita Nova thrift store was “a true community outreach project for the day.” The group completed the painting in three hours before the afternoon rain and was a good lesson for the youngsters. “Jesus calls all of us to serve others,” Sullivan said.