Catholic Heart Work Camp makes lasting impression on Natchez teens

Catholic Youth by the thousands attend Cathloic Heart Work camps across the nation every summer. This year, students from many parishes in the Diocese of Jackson went to camps from Florida and Tennessee all the way to Illinois. This year, a group from Natchez wrote reflections on their experiences at a Catholic Heart Work camp in Champaign Ill., June 18-24. Three of those teenagers wrote reflections on their experience. Here are excerpts from each of their reflections.

Olivia Waycaster, center, participates in one of the group exercizes at Catholic Heart Work Camp. In addition to volunteer work, the teens got a chance to pray and play together. (Photos courtesy Carrie Lambert)

Michael Roboski and two other volunteers load the dumpster as part of a renovation project at a school in Illinois. Several teens from a Natchez youth group spent part of ther summer at Catholic Heart Work camp.

Volunteer Chris Johnson helps with classroom renovations at Catholic Heart Work Camp. Young people from Natchez Cathedral Parish joined with volunteers from around the country for the volunteer experience in Illinois.

Gracie Bertelsen

I got encouraged by older members of my youth group to go to Catholic Heart Workcamp (CHWC) five years ago, and I have made it a priority to go every summer since. Although I have been assigned a different work project and a different work group every year, I can always count on three things when I go to CHWC: having fun, growing closer in the relationships I have not only in my youth group but also with new friends, and most importantly, growing in my relationship with God.

            This year, our youth group chose to travel north to Champaign, Illinois where we stayed at St. Thomas Moore High School. I was assigned to a group that was working alongside two other groups. We helped a non-profit youth club called Mahomet Area Youth Club (MAYC) move locations. This youth club gave troubled kids, ranging from ages six to fifteen, a place to spend time during the summer. They provided free activities, field trips, educational programs, etc. to the children who attended the club. Among the three groups who were assigned to help MAYC, we packed their things from the old facility and moved it to their new facility, cleaned and organized the new facility, improved the landscaping around the new facility, built a privacy fence around the new backyard, and played with the kids while the moving was taking place.

            I was part of the group in charge of packing, unpacking, and organizing their things. After spending the whole week helping their employees with that task, we met the kids. They were brought over by one of the other work groups and we got to experience their reaction to seeing their new location for the first time. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the faces of the people who you’ve spent all week helping when they see the final project completed. The adults as well as the kids were so excited and grateful for what we had done to help them. In my opinion, that is the most satisfying part of CHWC. In those moments, all I can do is smile! Being able to spread the word of God and showing his love to others is the mission of Catholic Heart.

            Apart from going to the work sites, every day we got to go to mass, pray, spend time with friends, and sing praise and worship songs. The Catholic Heart staff that was with us in Champaign shared their testimonies with us a few nights out of the week. Throughout the week, we were given many opportunities to open ourselves up to the grace and love of God through prayer and worship during the evening programs. There were also many moments of laughter and times to just have fun.

            I have always left Catholic Heart Workcamp feeling happy and satisfied. It is an experience that every person should try to be a part of!


Nic Waycaster:

This summer, my St. Mary Basilica youth group traveled to Champaign, Illinois for Catholic Heart Workcamp.  Having been twice before–to Roanoke, Virginia and Pensacola, Florida–I thought I knew what to expect:  prayer, singing, painting houses.  My expectations this year were met with unexpected growth in faith, community, charity and as a disciple of Christ.

When we arrived we met some of the other youth groups. Groups hailing from Oklahoma, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania warmly greeted us.  At our first meeting, we were divided into forty-six different groups of four to six people, all with different charitable tasks to fulfill throughout the community during the week.  Some groups were painting houses for the less fortunate, some were building fences, and some were doing yard work. My group of five was given the unique task of running a daycare in an apartment complex for underprivileged children.  We had no idea what to expect.

When we arrived at the daycare, we were in a small room with a refrigerator, an outdated microwave, and a small tile play area with toys strewn across the room.  There was a large concrete slab between apartments and an old playground.  When the children arrived at the daycare they could not have been happier.  Seeing new people in their favorite place to play was extraordinary in their eyes.  The kids never tired and played with a smile on their faces from the time they arrived at 9:00 a.m. until the time we left at 3:00 p.m.  

Although these children did not have many toys or nice tablets like so many other children, they were grateful for what they had.  They were truly filled with the joy of Christ.  While we ministered to these kids, they unknowingly ministered to us.   

During the week, I also grew closer with my group members, especially new friends from Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  The way Christ worked through their positive attitudes and tireless charity encouraged the rest of the group, leading the way for a great week for the the children as well as for each of us.  

Back at the high school where all of the youth groups were being housed for the week, we celebrated Mass daily and had a few hours of prayer and song each evening.  Our celebrant for the week was a priest from Pennsylvania.  He gave the best homilies!  Every every morning I left Mass with something to think about throughout the day.  

The motto for Catholic Heart Workcamp this year was “Rooted.”  This theme figured significantly during the week and continues to be important in my life today.  We are all rooted in Christ.  We have life because of His sacrifice. We are called to glorify him in all that we do.  My faith was definitively and permanently strengthened by the people that I met, the experiences that I had, and the message I received at Catholic Heart Workcamp.

While we all acted or spoke differently because of our regional backgrounds, our love for Christ and the strength of our faith was universal.  The community aspect of the camp made everyone’s faith stronger and rooted everyone in a deeper relationship with Christ and one another as his disciples.


Michael J. Roboski

From 2007-2009, I accompanied my youth group to Catholic Heart Workcamp for a week over the summer. During this time, I bonded with friends, and also deepened my faith through service. The experience was unlike anything I had before as a Catholic in the Protestant Bible Belt. Don’t get my wrong, my home church is beautiful with it’s 174 year old history, Gothic-Revival Architecture, and breathtaking stained-glass windows. However, not much had changed in our parish since the church was built. We still kept the communion rail up, even though Vatican II disbanded them in in 1959, and our pipe organ is so old that even “Ode to Joy” sounds like a funeral dirge when played through it. Catholic Heart showed me that the Catholic Church is alive and well today.

Flash forward ten years from my first experience and I now had the opportunity to chaperone a group of students to their first CHWC. Well, they initially asked my Dad to do it, but he only agreed to go if I went, and I was thrilled to return. Dad and I left ahead of the charter bus to meet them in St. Louis, Missouri where we explored Six Flags, Anheuser-Busch (on our own time), and enjoyed a few too many slices of Imo’s pizza.

The next day, we arrived at camp in Champaign, Illinois. Now, if you’ve never been to Champaign, Illinois, just close your eyes and imagine a school, a gas station, and corn as far as the eye can see. That’s about it. The CHWC staff greeted us with smiles, offered to help unpack, and took a group picture of us and then the camp officially started. As it turns out, we had been booked into a “Next Level” camp. I kept hearing the term tossed around, but thought they were just referring to it that way because it was a spiritual/service camp, and not a purely fun one like space camp. Nope. Next-Level referred to the seriousness of the camp in that Mass was held every morning, the attendees were a bit more founded in their faith, and the staff was all very experienced, and as a result, a little distant.

Overall, the benefits of attending this next-level CHWC greatly outweighed the disappointment of taking off the nostalgia glasses. The daily masses really helped to set the mood and remind us why we are truly there, and I left the week with a sense of completeness and warmth that I had not felt in a long time. During Adoration, I truly felt the Presence for the first time ever. For those non-Catholics reading this, Adoration is a quiet prayer time spend in front of a Monstrance, which is a golden spiked holder for a blessed Eucharist (which Catholics believe to be the true body of Christ). It was an experience that I was able to have alone in the crowded gym where we gathered and felt sorrow, repentance, joy, and hope all within the 30 minutes of quiet reflection time.

The best part of Catholic Heart Workcamp is called Four Corners. This is an event that even the basic camps host, and the next-level one made it all the better. The idea of Four Corners is that the room is split up into 5 areas. Just kidding, it’s four. One is a space where you offer up prayers and intentions through physically writing them down on paper, a rock, or something else. Two of the corners have the adults sitting down around the space with a candle in front of them signifying that you can approach them to talk or pray. I had two young people come up to me and my candle at one point and was able to talk them through some stuff they were worried about and offered prayers for clairvoyance and peace of mind. It was really a wonderful experience. The final corner though, is Reconciliation. One of the seven sacraments is offered as a private area is roped off and 18 priests were there to hear confessions and offer forgiveness. I was the first in line for this as it had been a while since I last went. I suffer from anxiety and mild-depression and the sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the few times that I can go to someone, unload all the guilt and worry from life, and leave truly happy with a burden lifted. The best part about CHWC’s Reconciliation though is that the priest and I did not know each other and are likely never to see each other again, so there are no holds barred and the sacrament can be completed in it’s purest form.

I left Catholic Heart Workcamp this year with a sense of worth. Not a selfish, or entitled sense of worth, but one that whispered at my heart and told me that I mattered, and that I was able to make a difference in someone’s life. That alone was worth the week of sleeping on a classroom floor, eating the scraps off the Sysco truck, and sitting on a bus full of teenagers for 13 hours. That, and the quality time I got to spend with my Dad was nice too. He and I have been adventure buddies for a long time, but that will be a post for another day. I hope that this post inspires you to seek something that will give you the same level of happiness and contentment that this experience provided me. God Bless.