The teenagers who were wiping down tables in the school gym at St. Martin of Tours knew it wasn’t the most exciting work, but they were there to serve and that was the work they had been asked to do.
They were among 40 young people in Philadelphia who were taking part in a Christian service retreat called Salesian Gospel Roads. The program organizes retreats each summer to help teenagers lend a hand to others, and grow in the practice of their faith.
Sandra Rivera, 18, graduated from St. Martin of Tours in 2008 and Mercy Vocational High School. Last year, she took part in a retreat at various sites in Philadelphia, and this year, in late July, she led a team of six young people in their service projects.
“We helped the elderly, disabled and homeless last year. I was determined to come back to help the new people who were joining this year,” said Sandra, who already plans to take part in a retreat next summer in Stony Point, N.Y.
Valerie Matedero, a 17-year-old high school senior from Long Island, spent a week at a retreat in Philadelphia last summer. “It was a great experience. It changes the way you look at things,” she said.
Sandra’s team included Valerie; Gio Lopes, a 15-year-old from New York; Julia Flanagan, a 15-year-old St. Martin’s graduate who’ll be a sophomore at Central; Jayson Gomes, an 18-year-old college freshman from Maryland; and Matthew Quintana, a 14-year-old St. Martin’s graduate who’ll be a freshman at Abraham Lincoln.
Salesian Gospel Roads, operated by the Salesians of Don Bosco, was formed in 2001 in South Orange, N.J. In addition to Philadelphia, service retreats have been held this summer in Washington, D.C., Haiti, New Orleans, Tampa, Newark, N.J., Leeds, Ala., and Port Chester, N.Y.
Later this summer, there will be retreats in Chicago, Stony Point and Toronto.
Jim Klein, youth minister at St. Martin’s and director of the Philadelphia Gospel Roads retreat, explained that the young people took part in various activities across the Philadelphia area. Most were ages 15 to 18. The Rev. Jay Horan, a Salesian of Don Bosco, accompanied the group, which stayed at La Salle University.
The cost is $225 for lodging, meals, a T-shirt and supplies. A typical day included Mass, reflection, sharing, discussion and a prayer service. There were opportunities for confession, Eucharistic Adoration and a visit to the St. John Neumann shrine.
At the end of the week, each participant received a footprint pendant as a reminder to always walk the Gospel Roads.
There also was time for fun, including trips to the Philadelphia Zoo and Old City. Kathy McDonough, a longtime St. William Elementary School teacher, hosted a Mass, dinner and swimming pool party at her house.
But the bulk of the week was spent at service work sites. Sandra, Julia and Matthew returned to their alma mater, St. Martin’s, to clean the tables in the gym for a day.
At the Little Sisters of the Poor, at 53rd Street and Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, they tended to the garden and spent time with residents making pillows, playing bingo and the piano and doing arts and crafts.
At St. Edmond’s Home for Children, a facility in Rosemont for young people with physical, mental and genetic disorders, they interacted with residents, including accompanying them on a trip to Adventure Aquarium.
At the Provincialate of the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer in Huntingdon Valley, they picked vegetables in a community garden for future delivery to the poor.
At Our Lady of Fatima in Bensalem, they took part in activities with children attending a Bible camp.
At Cristo Rey High School, which will open next month at the old Our Lady of Hope school building in Logan, they prepped the site for its debut.
Klein, the 24-year-old Manhattan native who directed the retreat, said he and the others enjoyed getting a smile from a young person or a thank you from an old person.
“The little things do make a difference in their lives,” he said.
Jayson was on his second retreat, having gone to one in Stony Point in 2010. “Our school (Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Takoma Park, Md.) encourages us to attend and involves us in these types of events,” he said.
Matthew was permitted to attend even though he’s a year younger than the minimum 15, getting a recommendation from the Rev. Christopher Cooke, who recently left St. Martin’s. Matthew described the visit to St. Edmond’s as “really emotional” for him.
“I got a great experience. I like helping people,” he said.
Gio, too, was moved by his visit to St. Edmond’s.
“It was very tough for me. I had a tough time,” he said.
For Sandra, it was the second year in a row that she had gone to St. Edmond’s.
“It was pretty cool to see how some of the kids have grown,” she said.
Julia will remember her visit, too.
“I spent all day with one girl, and all I could get out of her were a couple of smiles, but it was worth it,” she said. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org