Summer is a time for kids to play and take a respite from hard work. So why was there a waiting list for St. Henry School students to spend a portion of those precious days in a community service program?
That program is called Summer, Service and Solidarity, and is the brainchild of St. Henry Youth Director Amy Johnston.
In partnership with several non-profits in the area, Johnston arranged for students to volunteer at various sites that serve those in need. "The hope was to focus on relationship, that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ rather than separate groups, one there to ‘serve' and another to ‘receive,'" she explained. "In relationship with others, we should be doing both."
That defines the "solidarity" part. For the service component, students visited agencies that provide vital services, such as: Thistle Farms, which assists women survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction; Loaves and Fishes, which feeds and offers other resources for the homeless; and Metro Parks' disABILITIES program, which makes recreational opportunities available to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"I tried to pick locations that serve diverse populations, so students would have a variety of experiences," said Johnston.
Johnston also selected service locations that could reasonably accommodate her troop of 10 volunteers, so the students could help, and not hinder, the agency's efforts. She also identified entities in different parts of the city.
"Nashville is growing quickly, and with that growth comes new needs and challenges," Johnston said. "I wanted students to see that there are organizations all over this town where they can get involved, share their gifts and talents and work to support our neighbors."
What the youth actually did on-site depended on the particular needs and activities of each organization. They did calisthenics with peers with disabilities in the Metro Parks disABILITIES program; played bingo with residents of Place at the Trace, a senior care center; served drinks and cleaned up after the lunch meal at Loaves and Fishes; and entertained young children with games and art projects at Preston Taylor Ministries for at-risk youth.
"At Thistle Farms we were privileged to participate in their morning circle and share stories with the community," said Johnston. "Each experience was unique, but powerful."
"Thistle farms gave me a different outlook on life," said St. Henry student Kate Hoots. "You never know what someone is going through. Thistle Farms is an amazing organization, the people there are all working so hard to better themselves and each other.
"Preston Taylor ministries was one of the best service opportunities I have had," she added. "Being with the kids and just being able to be a role model to them and they look up to you just makes you realize how God uses us to help other people."
Johnston began her work with young people at St. Henry at the end of last summer, so this year was the first time Summer, Service and Solidarity was offered, and, seemingly, to great success. "I think these experiences were a lot of fun, and I'm really hoping for more trips to come!" reported St. Henry student participant Regina Hammond.
Johnston's goal was to take advantage of the time students had off from school routines to familiarize them with their neighbors and community.
"Jesus spent His time with the marginalized and called us to do the same," she said. "That opportunity is something I can't fully offer without going outside our parish walls."
The summer venture fits nicely into Johnston's efforts throughout the school year. She sees her role as creating activities and an environment that encourages the students to grow in their relationship with God.
"My hope is to be a partner with families, a resource in the parish, to connect our young people and give them a voice, opportunities to meaningfully practice and share their faith, and a community in which they can celebrate it," she said.
Johnston plans to replicate the program in 2019, heartened by the waiting list for most of the outings during this summer's offering, and the positive response from the kids. She also relished collaborating with the numerous agencies and discovering, along with her student volunteers, the services they offer on a daily basis.
Summer, Service and Solidarity was a learning and enrichment program that benefited the youth, while still allowing them to enjoy themselves during their break from school. According to Johnston, it "challenged students to come out of their comfort zones, to encounter neighbors they may otherwise never meet, to see the needs in our city as well as the non-profits working to meet them, and most importantly, to live and also experience the Gospel."