By Maureen Smith
GREENWOOD – They come from the frozen north and from around the corner. They paint, clean, build and run summer camps. They offer a bit of themselves in service and return home all the richer for it. Summer is the season for service trips. Groups from Chicago, Wayne, Ill., Manitowoc, Wis., and local young adults spread out in the Delta and in North Mississippi in June and July to do service work during their summer.
A group of 70 adults and young adults caravaned from Resurrection Catholic Community in Wayne, Ill., to spend two weeks in Greenwood in early June. This is the largest group to come from Illinois, but is the seventh time a group has made the trip.
Father Gregory Plata, OFM, was associate pastor at Resurrection 25 years ago. He made many friends there, including a man who was an executive at paint manufacturer Sherwin Williams and Kim and Marty Walker. “Eight years ago he was up visiting,” said Kim Walker. “We asked him if he would have projects to work on if we got a group together to come down,” she said. Father Plata had a long list of things a volunteer group could do and a tradition was born.
The Walkers divided the group into three sections. The first ran a vacation Bible school at Greenwood Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in the mornings. “It is one of the only ones open to kids of any faith, any race, any background,” said Walker. They also provided lunch for the 70 kids who attended.
A second group ran an afternoon enrichment program. “They read a story that provided a theme for the day and each day had a different theme,” explained Walker. The group helps run a fish fry fundraiser midway through their visit.
The remaining volunteers fan out around town to power wash and paint houses and other structures. This year they painted 14 homes, washed four and painted a downtown building that will be used as an after-school center. Sherwin Williams donates paint, ladders and other supplies and also opens up the trip as an opportunity for employees to do service. This year nine managers from around the country joined the group to paint, but that’s not all. “They come down to inspect the homes we painted, even the ones from seven years ago,” said Father Plata. “They want to make sure the paint lasts and is holding up,” he explained.
Both Walker and Father Plata explained that these projects do more than just make things look better. Last year the group painted a community center in Baptist Town, one of the poorest sections of town. “It was great to see people from Baptist Town come out while we worked, they brought drinks and interacted with the kids,” said Father Plata.
“Some of the people who helped with that were able to go back this year and see the building in use. It has Pilates classes, meeting places, classrooms and kids activities,” said Walker. Father Plata said the work this group does often acts as a catalyst in conjunction with the work of other church and community groups to revitalize a structure and the surrounding community.
“I really appreciate that they are working out in the Mississippi heat, especially coming from the north. I have gone out there with them when they are painting and – God bless the work they are doing because it can be brutal,” said Father Plata.
The week after the Illinois group left, another came, this time from Manitowoc, Wis. For the past six years, this group has been traveling from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc to the parish of the same name in Greenwood. The trip was the brainchild of Deacon Rich Bahnaman, who started an ecumenical service organization that spends time overseas and in America helping those in need. The Franciscan Sisters who teach at the school in Greenwood are based in Manitowoc so the parishes have a connection already.
This year 10 volunteers ran a week-long summer camp at St. Francis of Assisi School. On the first day of the camp, Monday, June 22, a hundred children attended. The school served breakfast and lunch.
First-time volunteer Danielle Lipski is not Catholic, but did a school counseling internship under Deacon Bahnaman. “When I did my internships I had no cultural experience and it’s just important to experience different cultures. For example, some of the kids here don’t know English as well as the other kids so that was a new experience,” said Lipski.
“My wife has been down here many times and many good friends like Mark and Lisa (Knipp) have been down here and have nothing but good things to say about it. They all say there is a piece of Greenwood in their hearts,” said Jerrod Jirikowic, another first-time volunteer. “This was actually a stepping stone for my wife to do mission trips. It was the first one she was on and now she has since gone down to Jamaica a couple times,” he added.
Lisa and Mark Knipp are regulars. This year they brought along their 14-year-old daughter Abbey for the first time. Both said they have enjoyed watching some of the kids who attend camp every year grow up and become camp volunteers. “Our oldest daughter Erin was a freshman in college when she came. She always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but was kind of struggling at the end of that freshman year, so she came down and after we left, she said ‘yes, I am supposed to be a teacher,’” said Lisa.
Walker said members of her group have had similar experiences. “To me it’s overwhelming that it started as a ‘can we help’ thing with about 20 people,” said Walker. “I never signed on to change people’s lives, but that’s what has happened,” she said. In addition to watching the community pride build as projects are completed and expanded, Walker said the volunteers go home changed. At the end of the week volunteers are invited to share the impact the trip has had on them. More than one has changed their course of college study or changed their idea of what career to pursue.
(Editor’s note: see page 16 for related story)