Catholic Herald staff
Last summer, four teens from Holy Rosary Parish, Medford, went on a mission trip to Montana.
It was a learning experience for Justin Steele, parish youth minister and director of religious education for grades seven through 12.
“In planning this, it was kind of somewhat hindsight from last year’s mission trip,” he said of this past July’s trip to California.
Coordinated through Catholic Heart Workcamp, the 2013 mission included four workdays and one day of sightseeing. The Medford crew was divided – they didn’t work together – and there was little variety in their assignments. Some teens scraped paint for four days.
“I worked at the house of a hoarder for four days, and it was pretty intense,” Steele admitted.
In hindsight, Steele, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology, wanted the teens to enjoy more of God’s creation.
“Sightseeing is kind of equally religious an experience as service,” he said.
He also wanted to expose his seventh- and eighth-grade students to a wider variety of human needs, create opportunities for them to work together and give them more adventure for their money.
His solution was to design a two-week mission trip that emphasized creation and charity equally. Each day of volunteering would be followed by a day of tourism; Steele tried to choose a good blend of sights to see and services to perform.
“I wanted to pick distinctly different service projects,” he said.
To minimize costs, Steele also found inexpensive lodgings – free campgrounds and churches – where the group could camp out.
In 2013, students paid an average of $350 each to the mission camp, in addition to the cost of food and fuel, for a one-week trip. This year, teens paid only $360, the cost of food and fuel, for two weeks.
The 2014 mission trip generated more interest because it was more affordable, he said.
On the road
The morning of July 7, a group of nine teens and three chaperones – Steele, his wife, Melissa, and Holy Rosary parishioner Maria Schneveis – set off in two vans from Medford. Their destination was California’s Redwood forests.
They made it to Fargo, North Dakota, the first day, where they volunteered at a local food pantry. The next day they spent at the Badlands, followed by a day of service at a women’s shelter in Spokane, Washington. Day four was a hike up Mt. Ranier; they volunteered at an animal shelter for cats, then visited the California Redwoods.
In San Francisco, the group saw the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf. Then, they suffered a slight setback when the brakes went out on Steele’s van.
Steele and a couple of the guys replaced the brake pads, he said, and he took the van to a mechanic for new rotors and calipers. At the shop, they guys saw the mechanic’s sons playing with an OBD2 scanner and now they cant stop talking about it.
They lost a day and a half – time slated for tree-planting in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a visit to Mt. Rushmore – but they did get to experience Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
The final service project was a highway cleanup in Mankato, Minnesota.
They returned to Medford the evening of July 18.
In the end, Steele said, the months he spent planning the mission trip was worth the effort. When he compares this year’s trip to last year’s, he’s pleased with the results, despite the mechanical problems.
“Other than the hiccup, it was wonderful,” he said. “It was fantastic.”
Overall, he felt the teens were more enthusiastic, and they liked the mix of work and play.
“They were really pleased to not be doing the same thing over and over,” he added.
Steele also liked being able to control the flow of the trip.
“We could put more into it,” he said.
To tie everything together, Steele chose Bible passages to correspond with each service project and sightseeing stop. At Mt. Ranier, they reflected on Psalm 149:9, “Mountains and hills, bless the Lord.” At the women’s shelter, it was the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
For Steele, the highlight of the trip was “forcing myself to walk up Mt. Ranier, because it was quite the hike.”
He and some of the group reached the 7,200-feet elevation marker; it’s the first time he’s ever hiked through the snow wearing shorts in 72-degree weather.
Steele said he’s gotten a good response from the teens as well.
“I really enjoyed the trip,” said youth group member Jacob Mahner. “It was very fun and eventful. I especially liked the time we spent in San Francisco touring the city.”
According to Steele, San Francisco was a big hit.
“This was the far point and shared highlight of nearly all of the teens,” he said.