Many teenagers nod their heads in sympathy to the lyrics of a song by the popular group Simple Plan: “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare.” But those of us who attended the week-long Summer in the City service project now realize just how good we have it compared to others.
At Summer in the City, 36 teens and nine adults were housed at Epiphany Parish in Longport Aug. 9-15 and assigned service projects. The project was sponsored by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
On the first night we learned that there are some 37 million people in the United States living in poverty, many able to spend only $4 per day for food, even with welfare.
So our first activity was to split up into “families” or groups, with each person allotted $4 a day to eat. At the neighborhood supermarket, with a total of $28, our group shopped for proteins, carbohydrates and, of course, snacks. We came back with a double carton of eggs, bacon and a loaf of white bread for toast in the morning and sandwiches (peanut butter and fluff) for lunch, and spaghetti with a sauce, Doritos and a bag of grapes to serve five people.
After just one day we knew what it felt like to be hungry and have no food to eat and how terrible it must be to feel this way everyday.
Throughout the week, we saw another side of life.
“My heart sank as I had never really been exposed to the homeless this directly,” said one of my fellow participants John Lopez, after seeing a homeless man shaving in a public restroom.
The first place I was sent that really made an impression on me was Sister Jean’s Soup Kitchen in Atlantic City.
“It was amazing to me how as I only said, ‘Have a great day,’ how these people’s faces lit up, and how kind they were to me,” said volunteer Gina Tierno, “You always hear stories about how mean and nasty the homeless are but these people seemed so grateful to me and my fellow volunteers.”
At Catholic Charities in Atlantic City, people who are impoverished can come in and buy things, especially around Christmas, for very low prices. As volunteers we did landscaping work and organized storage space. About midway through the workday a family entered the building seeking financial assistance for their bills. As they wandered through, they found that for a mere $10 they could purchase their 7-year-old-son a new bicycle. The little boy’s smile stretched ear to ear as he wheeled out of the Catholic Charities building.
Shannon Heasty noted, “Seeing how much joy that bike brought to the face of that little boy really touched my heart and really made me realize how much (organizations) like Catholic Charities do for people”
At the Villa Raffaella Senior Assisted Living Community, Pleasantville, the place that made the biggest impression on me, we listened to the stories people told about their lives and their families. Their stories really made me look toward the future and wonder about the outcome of my own life.
I even had a conversation with a hearing impaired woman. Communicating through a dry erase board, she told me her whole life story, how happy it was until she lost her hearing. This seemed to be the gist of everyone’s story, a happy life struck down by illness and the difficult issues that come with age. Some residents had family who visited, while others did not, but they all seemed to be happy to talk to us.
The Summer in the City volunteer teams also visited the Food Bank and the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. In addition to our service, we had daily Mass, adoration and prayer. Our journey was thought provoking, prayerful and, I believe, even life changing.
Kieran McGirl, a Summer in the City participant, is a junior at Gloucester Catholic High School.