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Local church youth ministries creatively serve communities

Pandemic calls for thinking outside of the box


By Maria G. O’Donnell

Staff Writer


When Rev. Kevin L. Weikel asked ImmaCare, a homeless shelter in Hartford, if his church could conduct a clothing drive for them, they responded, “We need sandwiches. We need more sandwiches.”

Weikel, who is Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at Simsbury’s First Church of Christ, said his church has had a relationship with ImmaCare over the years and wanted to do a service project with his youth ministry called Pilgrim Fellowship, or PF. With the emphatic need for more sandwiches, Weikel said, “Whenever we do a service project, my job as youth minister is to find enough people to do it. We needed to make [over] 600 sandwiches.” And they had to do it via Zoom.

Since ImmaCare was in such great need of sandwiches, Weikel also reached out to South Park Inn, House of Bread, Elizabeth House, and Hands on Hartford to make sandwiches for them, as well. “Steve [Novy], who’s on the youth advisor team, pretty much organized everything,” said Weikel. “We have a relationship with Bryan DeVoe at Fitzgerald’s. He’s always wonderful to us.”

Novy agreed, “Bryan has always been an amazing asset – he’s very involved in the community and helps out however he can.” With only just over a week’s notice, “he got all the food we needed,” which was “awesome,” according to Novy. DeVoe’s deli crew packed meat and cheese into 20 packets accompanied by two loaves of bread for each youth group member to assemble at home.

Weikel had to excuse himself from participating in that part of the project as he came into contact with someone else who was exposed to COVID. (Fortunately, the Pastor turned out testing negative.) But Novy and another youth advisor, Andrew Hart, picked up the meat, cheese, bread and cookie dough from Fitzgerald’s.

That Sunday, Dec. 13, Novy and Hart set up a two-hour, staggered block of time for youth to pick up their supplies from the church’s fridge so they could make the sandwiches together during a Zoom call. Novy said, “At 7:00, everybody logged on. Kevin ran that show. You could see what everyone was doing; there was conversation, singing songs – it was kind of cool.”

Weikel took the opportunity to discuss the meaning behind the project. “What are the bigger issues that contribute to people having to rely on a shelter for food?” he posited.

They talked about the people at the shelters they were serving and how they may have lost jobs or needed educational opportunities. “We also checked in with one another; we still had conversation while doing something,” said Weikel, adding that the youth loved the project. In fact one student’s mom sent Weikel a text. Ben Fabian (Simsbury High School junior) said after the event, “I’ve been feeling so good since we made sandwiches with PF Youth Group on Sunday. I just love our church.”

When the sandwiches were made and cookies baked, everyone brought the items back to the church – again, over a staggered time period and wearing masks. The food went back in the fridge and, the next day, volunteers packed coolers and took them to the shelters and soup kitchens.

Novy hoped that the project could serve as an inspiration to others. “My immediate hope is

that other people can make a difference, to make sandwiches and take them down there,” he said. “There was a clear signal from ImmaCare that they were really hurting in getting food and getting it to the people in need. We saw the immediate need and said, Let’s go ahead and do this.”

The youth group anticipated doing one or two more sandwich sessions in January.

Meanwhile, Avon’s Church of St. Ann served its parish community in its own unique, creative way that was also COVID-safe. Director of Confirmation and Youth Ministry Rosemary Neamtz, MSW, noted that the virus has resulted in “a very difficult time to work with teens; it’s been brutal to try and do service. We were under a lot of restrictions in keeping the kids safe. We had to find a creative way to include the parish.”

The one and only in-person project they did this year was a first-time ever Christmas tree lighting in front of the church at the beginning of December. This answered the question, “How do you shine the light of God at Christmas?” Since in-church worship was limited and the Christmas pageant and choir couldn’t perform, the youth ministry decided to light the tree on the front lawn.

But it didn’t stop there. Neamtz said, “We asked all parishioners if they had any intentions they wanted us to pray for. We tied ribbons on the tree for every intention. Father [McHugh, Pastor] blessed the tree, and we prayed for the intentions.” She would update the parish with the process – that the tree was lit, the ribbons were out, and the community was welcome to stop by and say a prayer.

She acknowledged the simplicity of the project, “but we had so much feedback from our parishioners. It’s good to take care of your own spiritually.” Neamtz said the youth group usually helps with the food bank, but with many parishioners isolated this year, she had them email her their intentions. “It was a way our group could give back to our parish,” she said.

The Rev. John W. McHugh, Ph.D., agreed, “It was beautifully received by the parishioners, and we got a lot of compliments about it.” He also explained that typically his church holds off on decorating until the third Sunday of Advent, which the church refers to as “Gaudete Sunday,” which means “Rejoice! The Lord is near,” according to McHugh. “You get more joyous after Gaudete Sunday,” because the birth of Christ is soon to come.

But this year, they didn’t wait until mid-December. When Neamtz came to him with the idea of lighting a tree early in the month and tying red ribbons to symbolize parishioners’ intentions, McHugh thought it was a good idea. “We needed a little joy around here. People were so depressed about the coronavirus. We got the tree going and lights on with red bows, and it worked out very nicely. That’s why we did it early – to get a little joy.” He complimented the efforts of the youth, Neamtz, and Jennifer Soucy, Registrar and Confirmation Assistant.

While all of the parishioners’ submitted intentions remained confidential and anonymous, the students were allowed to know the nature of the prayer requests without naming names. “They ran the gamut,” Neamtz said of the intentions, from health, general happiness, being shut-in, blessing the world. “You never know the ripple effect you have,” she had told the kids. “Every time you see that tree, say a prayer because you never know how much the intention really needs prayer.”

Usually the youth group goes to Avon Health Center to trim the tree and have one-on-one interaction with the residents, according to Neamtz. “It was awful we couldn’t do it this year. We encouraged the kids to write letters.”

Yet the lighting of the tree and intention ribbon-tying turned out to be one of the more special projects for the group. “A selfless act,” said Neamtz. “The kids were out on a cold night, six feet apart, and helped put everything on the tree, then pray and give back to parishioners they don’t know. It really was wonderful and meaningful.”

The project was such a success, Neamtz wrote a letter to the students, telling them she’s never gotten this much feedback from parishioners. “It’s a tradition we’ll carry on for years to come. We’ll always tie ribbons and pray for parishioners.” VL