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'Great acts of kindness'

Krystle Wagner • Aug 1, 2017 at 2:00 PM

A mission camp and conference helped a group of local students grow in their Catholic faith and mindset.

Seventy-four students involved with the St. Mary’s Youth Ministries and 12 adults participated in the 2017 Alive in You, which took place July 11-16 in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

During the day, participants completed service projects. In the evenings, they attended Mass and listened to speakers from across the country.

Alive in You also took place in four other cities earlier this summer.

Chris Iwan, coordinator of the middle school and high school youth ministry for St. Mary’s Catholic Church, said he views the mission trip as the Super Bowl of the ministry year.

It’s the second year the Spring Lake parish provided the opportunity for students in grades 8-12 to participate in it. While on the trip, they learned lessons they can’t in a classroom, Iwan said.

Although the youth ministry was successful in previous years, it started thriving once mission trips started being offered, Iwan said.

“Students have truly enjoyed putting their faith into action,” he said.

Last year’s positive experience on the trip brought Olivia Balavitch back for another year. In addition to having fun and meeting new people, the 15-year-old said she grew her relationship with God.

Elly VanderHoek said her interest in helping and serving other people led her to participate for a second year.

Some students signed up early in September and spent the year fundraising for the mission. In addition to bonding on the trip, Iwan said students bond through fundraising efforts.

“It’s very plain to see that giving these teenagers an avenue to live out their faith is something they deeply desire,” he said.

They went to work as soon as they arrived in Wisconsin. Some worked at a nearby camp by scraping off old paint and freshening up the buildings with new paint. Another group spread wood chips, pulled weeds and cleared tree branches to make areas at a state park more accessible. Some participants also cleaned homeless and domestic violence shelters, and built and planted gardens at residential homes.

VanderHoek, 14, said that although their actions didn’t seem like much to them, she could tell the impact they were making in residents’ lives.

“We could tell how thankful they were,” she said.

Although exhausted, some of the participants said they didn’t want the trip to end when they started to leave. Their wish was granted when the trip home was delayed after one bus experienced a coolant leak.

Balavitch said that was one of the best parts of the trip because they had a chance to spend time playing music and singing. She said she also viewed it as a message that, although they were going home, it didn’t mean they have to return to their old ways. Instead, they’ll have new friends and be deeper in their faith.

While the group waited for a new bus, they also cleaned up the park-and-ride they were parked in. Iwan said it was encouraging seeing the kids continue their service and also share their faith with the people who stopped at the park-and-ride.

After a week away, Iwan said he’s noticed changes in the kids, such as having more confidence, being more outgoing and happier.

Iwan said they look forward to going back next year, and serving the West Michigan community through service projects.

VanderHoek said the trip helped them step outside their comfort zone and see different perspectives and circumstances that people face in their lives.

As the group settles back into their summer in West Michigan, 13-year-old Kayla Purvis said one lesson from the trip stands out the most to her: “The simple acts of kindness are great acts of kindness to people,” she said.

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