Youth from St. Agnes Parish in Naples taking part in Mission Possible Immokalee Retreat help serve food at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen at Guadalupe Social Services on Catholic Charities. (COURTESY)

Mission Possible

Immokalee  |  When taking part in a mission trip there are moments large and small, and everything in between, that make a lasting impact on the lives of those who are there. 

A group of about 50 teens from parishes across the Diocese of Venice had many such moments when they took part in the Mission Possible service trip to Immokalee during the second week of June.

The teens were sent out each day to various sites in the farming community of Immokalee, located some 30 or 40 miles east of Naples and Fort Myers to do service work as missionary disciples of the Lord. The main goal of the trip, organized by the Diocesan Mission Office, was to help teach the youth how to see the face of Christ in others. It was a mission trip of encounter, something Pope Francis has emphasized during his pontificate.

Based upon how the boys and girls spoke about their experiences at the end of the week, lives were impacted in a deeply profound and spiritual way.  

Perhaps it was when a free bag of groceries was handed to an elderly woman and the smile and an insistent “thank you,” nearly brought one teen to tears. Or maybe it was when another teen serving food at a Catholic Charities soup kitchen made eye contact with someone who asked for more cold juice to drink on a hot and steamy day.

Maybe it was as a pair of teens kicked a soccer ball around with energetic boys at a Catholic Charities day camp in Bonita Springs. Or even when one girl at the same camp sat down with a box of chalk and started to draw flowers, engaging a growing group of young girls who were happy to be 

with someone who also liked to draw beautiful things.

These small actions of kindness and compassion made a big difference in the lives of those whom they encountered, and in return the youth learned that they can find the face of Christ in others. This is all while, at the same time, realizing that they can make a real difference in the world, even if it is through seemingly small actions.

The youth who participated in the mission trip are from Our Lady of Light Parish in Fort Myers, Epiphany Cathedral Parish in Venice, Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch, St. Agnes and St. Peter the Apostles Parishes in Naples, and Incarnation and St. Patrick Parishes in Sarasota.

During the day, the youth were split into smaller groups and sent to service sites at Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Catholic Charities Positive Youth Development Enrichment Camp in Bonita Springs.

While most of the youth had few expectations for the week, and some admitted they initially only took part because a friend was there, the opportunities to assist the working poor and the children opened their eyes to a world not part of their own reality.

One young lady from St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples said she was ashamed to have so many nice things after encountering people who were grateful for a bag of groceries or even a bowl of soup, things she never considered to be that important.

“I have so much and they so little; yet they were happy to receive what little we could provide,” she said. “That was really difficult for me. I want to do more.”

Audrey Bishop, of St. Agnes Parish, said she found each day rewarding but the time working in the Guadalupe Social Services Casa Maria Soup Kitchen serving hot food was the highlight of the week. There the youth served nearly 100 people, some homeless or the working poor, including many small children, who may only eat that one meal all day.

“I don’t know what it is like to go hungry or to rely on a soup kitchen for my meals,” Audrey said. “Being able to serve them and know that what we were doing was needed and appreciated meant so much and helped me to appreciate all that I have. I hope our youth group comes out here again, or as often as possible. Even I would come out here by myself to help. I know it would make a difference.”

Lisa Dahn, who is the coordinator for the Diocese Mission Office (also known as the Propagation of the Faith), said it was remarkable to see the transformation in the youth throughout the week from sceptics to converts.

“We wanted to give them an experience that opened their eyes; that those they encounter have the light of Christ burning within them,” Dahn said. “They just had to look, and they found Christ everywhere. It was wonderful to see.”

One of the stops during the week was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group seeking better working conditions and wages for farm workers nationwide. There the teens learned about Immokalee and the plight of farm workers and the challenging working and living conditions they face. 

As part of the presentation, the missionaries were offered a basket that weighed 32 pounds, the amount tomato pickers collect and bring to trucks all day, every day, throughout the picking season. For that 32 pounds, the picker will earn between 50 and 75 cents. They were challenged to think about the doing that job for those wages, something men and women who are not much older than the missionaries themselves must do in order to scratch out a living. Later, the youth were given a chance to see things up close during a tour of working and deplorable housing conditions throughout the area, revealing some of the daily hardships faced by the farm workers and their families.

At the Catholic Charities Positive Youth Development Enrichment Camp, on the campus of St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs, the teens served as mentors and partners with 50 young boys and girls throughout the day. Some of the time was spent playing outside, but inside there were other activities to help the children improve their math and reading skills while still having fun.

The missionaries stayed at the Bethel Retreat Center and each day began with morning prayer and to plan the coming day. After their hard work there was free time for socializing before a community dinner.

On June 5 and 6, Father Krzysztof Piotrowski of St. Agnes Parish came and celebrated the Mass. On the last evening, Father Piotrowski also made time for Eucharistic Adoration and offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation for those who wanted to partake.

Each day included small Parish-based group discussions, allowing the  youth could reflect upon their day and share experiences. The youth leaders challenged the teens to remain focused on why they were taking part in the mission trip and to always know Christ was their companion on this journey. Several of the youth leaders said they observed the growth in maturity, of self and of spirit, seen in their charges as the week progressed.