One teen from Cherry Hill didn’t have a lavish Sweet 16 last year — instead, she spent it in Kingston, Jamaica, on a service trip with her youth group.
The teen was part of a group of five young people and some of their parents who went on the week-long service trip to the island with Sherine Green, the youth minister at Christ Our Light Parish, back in August. The group was serving at Sophie’s House, a home for children with severe disabilities, where a resident there was also celebrating her a birthday, her 12th.
“What [my teen] said to me was, ‘How about we go and we get a cake?’” Green said. “And that’s exactly what we did. We found the biggest cake that could feed over 35 children, plus our 10.
“Her mom sort of was trying to make a big deal of it the whole time and she was like, ‘Mom, it’s not about me, it’s about the people here,’” Green added. “And that spoke volumes. And our five teens … that was their attitude the whole time. It’s not about me, it’s about the people here.”
That’s the spirit Green hoped to instill in her teens when she brought them on the group’s first mission trip to the city where she grew up.
Besides their work at Sophie’s House, the group collaborated with the non-profit organization Mustard Seed to serve teen boys with HIV and AIDS, teen moms who had suffered abuse at a facility called Mary’s Child and more. They also took the time each day to prayerfully reflect on their experiences in community.
“My hope was for them to see people with economically very little but spiritually and culturally so much to give,” Green said.
Jenn Ramirez, 17, a senior at Merion Mercy Academy who attended the trip, saw just that in the people she served in Jamaica.
Ramirez had previous service experience — working with children with disabilities at Camp Fatima of New Jersey — but went to Jamaica to build on those experiences and nurture her love for history. Her time at Mary’s Child, she said, left the strongest impact on her.
“A lot of the girls were around my age,” Ramirez said. “Being able to observe the faith that they had, despite everything that had happened to them in their lives was impressive. It really opened your eyes to see other people and how they view their faith, and just being able to share with them and their experiences.”
Ramirez said her perspective of the church broadened after the trip.
“I think it helped me to understand more of the global aspect of the church community and that it’s important to engage with everyone within the church community, not just people very local to you,” she said. “I think that that just helped me increase my faith, just my confidence in God and how he placed things in not only mine, but in other people’s lives.”
Ramirez’s experiences in Jamaica — especially the time she spent working with children — also helped her to discern her future career choices.
“I’ve always been kind of conflicted as to what I wanted to study,” she said. “I was between sports medicine and history. So I think it pointed me more toward my passion in history, it more solidified that aspect of what I want out of a learning experience, and also it kind of made me want to consider being a teacher, seeing the kids’ appreciation for education and things that they wanted to do.”
Green’s youth group has been involved in justice and service efforts closer to home as well. They have worked at the Romero Center in East Camden, which hosts high school and college groups for immersion experiences, gone on walks with the organization UrbanPromise International to support children in Malawi and served impoverished communities in Camden.
These experiences, Green said, can be eye-opening — and faith-strengthening — for teens who may not know a world outside of their comfortable lifestyle.
“I feel like some part of faith could be missing if they’re not given an opportunity to see the opposite side of that, the flip side to that,” Green said.
“And the flip side is what our Gospels call us to — Matthew 25:31-40 calls us to seeing and feeding and meeting the poorest of the poor, feeding people, nourishing people, giving the thirsty water to drink, sheltering those that go without shelter and a roof over their head,” she added. “So the hope is that they’ll realize, teens will realize that [and] their families will be called to that sort of a theology which I’ve been privileged to learn.”
Amanda Woods is a writer from Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish in Brooklyn, New York.