By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
LEE’S SUMMIT — For the past several months, the local news has been full of photographs and videos of the destruction in Joplin caused by the May 22 E5 tornado. Many Kansas City area volunteers have traveled to the southwest Missouri city to help residents clean up and begin to rebuild.
For five days, July 11-15, a group of Joplin Catholic middle school students were in Kansas City, engaged in community service at several sites, and learned about Catholic social teaching. They were part of Just5Days, a national program of community service, hands-on learning, liturgy and prayer for middle school students. Nine students from St. Peter the Apostle Middle School entering seventh, eighth and ninth grades and their adult leaders spent several days working at Uptown Resale store, a Catholic Charities-run thrift store in Lee’s Summit.
The young people vacuumed the store, steamed, hung and priced clothing, dressed mannequins, sorted shoes, and laughed, chatted and charmed customers.
Katie Carr, who will be in the ninth grade in September, said she felt so welcomed at Uptown Resale. “Everybody here is so nice and friendly; it’s changed my mind about thrift stores. The work is fun, and all my friends are here. You know, the tornado has made our group closer.”
Just5Days is a program of the Center for Ministry Development, a non-profit, Catholic organization based in Gig Harbor, Wash., working with Youth and Young Adult Ministry, and Lifelong Faith Formation. When Just5Days began two years ago, Ann Marie Eckert of the Center for Ministry Development in Buffalo, NY, said, “We looked for places that would have good work sites but weren’t really big cities (like Chicago) where parents of middle schoolers might hesitate to send their children. We were also looking for cities that are within a five-hour drive for parishes that were already engaged in our high school service program called Young Neighbors in Action. The Midwest has been very supportive of both Young Neighbors in Action and Just5Days, such that we have almost 3,000 youth (and adults) involved in these two programs this summer.”
Soon-to-be seventh graders Sarah Peterson and Emily Freitas have “always helped out,” around their school, in their neighborhoods and with their parents. “I thought this would be fun, to help people outside of Joplin,” Emily said. “We do community service at school, but this is different.”
Sarah chimed in, “We’re staying at St. James Academy, and in the mornings and every night we take about what we did that day and reflect on it.” St. James Academy, the newest Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, hosted the Kansas City site workers, who came from St. Peter Parish in Kansas City, St. Mark Parish in Independence and parishes in Joplin, Altoona, Iowa, and Milwaukee.
Other teams of middle school high school students have contributed summer service hours to nursing homes and senior centers, community gardens, in soup kitchens and food pantries, working with people with disabilities and more across the country, Eckert said.
Katie Carr added that Just5Days was her first mission trip, but she has helped with clean up efforts in Joplin. “I think our city and people will be stronger when we don’t have to look at the devastation the tornado left. Almost 30 percent of Joplin was flattened,” she said.
Nathan, who will be in the ninth grade this year, recalled his first sight of his neighborhood in the aftermath of the tornado.
“I thought, ‘Whoah! People were everywhere looking for things and other people,” he said. “It made you think about your own life, and say, ‘I’m OK.’ But things are getting better. I think Joplin will be strong again and people will be willing to take on new challenges. Before when you’d see people in cars, they’d look at the floor or out another window. Now, we look at people’s faces and eyes.”
Nathan was impressed with Kansas City. “It’s a great place,” he said. “The compassion here is wonderful. Without service to others and compassion, there is no hope.”
Catholic youth minister Brian Zeigler was familiar with service sites in the Kansas City area, and served as the local site coordinator for Just5Days. He coordinated with Catholic Charities and Teresa Fuenfhausen, manager of Uptown Resale Store, to get the kids working there last week. Fuenfhausen and her staff of volunteers provided an orientation to Uptown Resale Store for the Joplin group when they arrived at the store on July 12 to give the middle schoolers a sense of how their work would contribute to the thrift store’s over-all mission.
Almost-ninth-grader Rachel Peterson said there were just two members of their group who didn’t lose their homes in the tornado. “Right now, there’s not much to do in Joplin except clean up and rebuild,” she said with a grin. “The tornado was awful, but right after it, things began to get better. People started right away to clean up and put their houses back together,” the teenager said.
Rachel, her sister Sarah, and their parents, Just5Days adult leaders Annette and Chris Peterson, were all enjoying working at Uptown Resale.
Rachel listed the things she had done that morning. “I vacuumed, hung clothes up and put prices on them, and dressed some mannequins. I’ve seen some really cute clothes and we put the cutest stuff on the mannequins!”
Ethan Guovace, who will be a seventh grader, said, “Community service is fun. I set up and decorated a Christmas tree for the Christmas in July sale that’s going to be here. And I’ve set up some Christmas decorations on tables for the sale.” His ear-to-ear grin made the Christmas season seem near.
Then he turned serious. “What you see on TV is not at all what it really is like in Joplin,” Ethan said. “We live in Tornado Alley; we’re used to trees being blown down and tornados coming through every spring. This one was just worse than most.”
Haley Sloan and Emily Hughey are looking forward to being ninth graders. Community service was a new experience for both girls, but Haley said, “I think it is something I can see myself doing for a long time.”
Emily agreed. “It’s been really fun! All our friends are here, we talk and we listen to music playing, and we’ve gotten a lot of work done! We’ve helped organize the shelves in the back room. We’ve done a lot of catching up on work there weren’t enough volunteers to do.”
Haley added, “We sorted through boxes of shoes and belts. I dressed some mannequins, and we’ve waited on customers.”
Aaron, an almost seventh grader, wanted to help people and get away from all the destruction in his hometown. “Wow, it happened so fast,” he recalled. “I wondered how many people were hurt, mentally and physically. Helping out here has been good for me.”
Haley said Joplin was full of volunteers, and it will seem weird when they leave. “But we have gotten used to them being around, and we’ll get used to them not being around. It’ll still be home.”
Teresa Fuenfhausen said the Joplin group had blessed Uptown Resale with their presence and hard work.
“They are so mature,” she said, “and the witnessing of their faith just by being here and helping us has been amazing! They think they are blessed to be able to do this, but we are blessed to have them. They’ve worked cheerfully and willingly, and do whatever they see that needs to be done. When the girls were all busy, a couple of the young men waited on customers. The customers said they’d seldom met boys with better manners. We have been blessed this week.”
Annette Peterson, one of the adult leaders, said that originally a group of 17 middle school students signed up for Just5Days, “but that was before the tornado. We wanted to do this. We’ve lost so much, our homes, some possessions, but we have insurance, we have resources. There are people who are worse off all the time — they haven’t been hit by a tornado!”
Annette, who teaches religion at St. Peter Middle School in Joplin, said the mission trip to Kansas City was a way of giving back to the area volunteers who have helped the people of her town.
“It’s refreshing to get outside of ourselves,” she said. “Every night the kids and we reflect on what we did that day and what we learned about Catholic teaching and justice.”
Her husband Chris Peterson added that the mission trip was “A chance to get out of our comfort zone. Well, having your house significantly damaged or destroyed by a tornado does get you out of your comfort zone,” he said ruefully, “but this is different. This trip has helped us feel connected with others. We’ve been trying to take care of our own lives and possessions, and many of us have been helped by friends and by strangers. This helps complete the circle. People have helped us, we help other people.”
Both Chris and Annette said they were glad to come to Kansas City, with their daughters Sarah and Rachel for the Just5Days service week. They had met as students at Rockhurst University, and both liked Kansas City.
The Just5Days group from Joplin has gone back home now. But the volunteer staff and customers at Uptown Resale Store will remember for a long while the laughter, the good manners and the cheerful, hard work of a handful of middle school students who spent a few summer days serving others.
If you would like to volunteer at Uptown Resale Store or any of the other Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Charities ministries, contact Kelly Johnson, Catholic Charities volunteer coordinator (816) 659-821 9 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.