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Posted July 25, 2007

A Youth Success Story

Prayer and Action initiative connects
youths with universal church

By Doug Weller
Catholic News Service

Sister Barbara Ellen Apaceller doesn't judge the success of the Prayer and Action project by the gallons of paint used. She counts the teenagers committed to Christ.

"Kids are searching for a prayer life, for a relationship with Christ," she said. "Here, they are experiencing the bigger church, the universal church."

Sister Barbara Ellen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia and youth ministries director for the Diocese of Salina, said the second year of the Prayer and Action project has been nothing but inspiring. "It's far exceeded my expectations," she said.

Seminarian Gale Hammerschmidt proposed the idea two years ago, and he and Sister Barbara Ellen applied for a grant from the Catholic Church Extension Society to help get it started.

The goal was to provide youths a local mission experience, he told The Register, Salina's diocesan newspaper, but it has grown to be so much more.

It connects youths to people in need, it rallies people in the community and it creates lifelong relationships, he explained. "That's an added bonus I didn't realize. It's been a true blessing," he said.

Teams of youths and adult sponsors spend a week tackling projects for people in need. This year, they spent the last two weeks of June in Colby, and the last three weeks of July in Salina. Local coordinators and parishes help line up the work, and the teams fan out each day.

But the biggest difference from the first year, Hammerschmidt noted, is the contributions of local parishes and people and businesses in the communities.

"The community involvement has been incredible," he said. "We have more than enough supplies, and it's all provided by the community for us to use."

The teams of workers are not just wielding paint brushes and rakes. Each day begins with morning prayers, recitation of the rosary and Mass. Each day ends with prayer time, discussions and talks on Catholic teaching.

In between, the workers are witnessing to dozens of people. As the team leaders dole out daily assignments, Hammerschmidt makes it a point to tell the youths that their jobs aren't limited to physical labors and that they should try to connect with the people they are helping.

Many of the recipients are in need of the personal contact more than the completion of chores, he tells them.

That's exactly what Pope John Paul II urged youths to do, Sister Barbara Ellen said. The late pontiff told them not to be afraid to be holy, to be a saint, to be a witness to Jesus Christ. "These kids are serious about that," she said.

Knowing that they're helping someone else also is a good feeling, said Erica Streit of Tipton. She and others were working to complete an extensive house-painting job. "Today you can see the difference we've made. It's exciting to see the progress," she said.

That kind of dedication has been an eye-opener for Brian Lager, a seminarian and team leader. "It really inspires me to come back to serve this diocese as a priest," he said.

This year's program has about 150 youths and 30 adults taking part, nearly double from its first year, Hammerschmidt said.

Word of mouth from those first-year participants certainly helped sell the program, he said. "But there are still groups that are taking a leap of faith that it will be a worthwhile experience," he said.

The relationships that the youths are building among themselves -- and with him -- are a wonderful benefit, he said.

Those friendships will continue at diocesan and national Catholic Youth Organization events and possibly at college, he said. "And for me, God willing," he added, "I might be their parish priest someday."