Project Life teens serve as signs of God’s presence

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After her farm was hit by a tornado more than three months ago, pretty much all that's left of Sharolyn LaRose-Brown's property is the shell of a home in which she once lived and several mounds of debris that once made up nine separate outbuildings.

The night of the EF4 tornado on Feb. 28, LaRose-Brown barely had time to take cover in her home, which sits on 272 acres just outside of Perryville. She suffered injuries and spent several days in the hospital. "At first I was so mad at God and how hard I worked on this house," she said. "But then I realized God didn't do this to me — Mother Nature did."

As she recounts the story of survival, LaRose-Brown now tells of God's presence in all of this. Witnessing almost two dozen teens recently rebuilding the fence that keep her two horses contained was all the evidence she needed.

The teens were part of Project Life, a weeklong service retreat organized by the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry. During the week of June 12-16, almost 150 camped out at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville, working six-hour days on service projects throughout the community, including cleaning homes, installing a drainage system, rebuilding decks and fences, and constructing a wheelchair ramp, among other projects.

In the evenings, they listened to inspirational talks based on this year's theme "Restless," participated in the sacraments and had time for faith sharing and fellowship. The goal was to become transformed by the Gospel call to love others through service to those in need.

What makes the effort unique is that these teens choose to be there, out of a desire to grow in faith and love others through service to those in need, as the Gospel calls them to do, said Tom Lancia, director of the Office of Youth Ministry.

"Project Life is a powerful way to experience and show the Love of Jesus and community through our service and prayer," Lancia said. "When we make time to rest with Jesus, our hearts find peace and strength to be the people Christ calls us to be."

Kyle Hannan, incoming junior at St. Louis University High School, spent his days erecting the wire fence, and clipping barbed wire on top. He watched his brothers participate in youth ministry and saw how much fun they had; his brother John introduced him to Project Life last year and he thought he'd give it a try. "I didn't think service could be this much fun," he said. "It takes the workload off, being around friends. You don't realize you're building a huge, ginormous fence when you're surrounded by people."

In the evenings, the spiritual nourishment focused on how they are called to rest in God. Annie Judd said she signed up to participate so she could break away from the noise and distractions and find time with God.

"We always try to fit into the culture rather than listen to God's voice and how He speaks to us," said the recent graduate of Ursuline Academy. "Sometimes we can forget that He's there. God is the one who gives us rest, He's the one who gives us peace. Project Life is a good way to find that — we all want to know more about God, and we all take that time, to take that quiet and enjoy each other's company."

Each morning as the group arrived at LaRose-Brown's farm, they were greeted by her four peacocks, a guinea fowl, and a cat — as well as the wildlife including deer and raccoons. Her son, John LaRose, guided them — often singing one liners from songs such as The Drifters' "This Magic Moment" — as they posted approximately 2,500 feet of new barbed-wire fencing. His mother has kept her horses on a relative's land, but she would like to get them back to the property as soon as possible.

John LaRose called the teens' presence "a true blessing from God." Since the tornado, the family has had several volunteer groups come to the farm to help with cleanup efforts. "In the time that they were here, they picked up thousands of pieces of debris," he said. "I said these thousands of pieces of debris that you picked up are really thousands of pieces of love."

"The terrible disaster that happened here, it's unfortunate, but God figures out ways to bring life back from wreckage and that's what we're doing," Judd said. "I learned the joy you can receive of giving yourself to others and there's nothing more powerful than that." 

Catholic Charities helps in recovery

Catholic Charities of St. Louis continues to provide long-term case management services to individuals and families affected by the tornado Feb. 28 in the Perryville area. Catholic Charities is providing financial assistance, rebuilding and relocation services, and assistance with mortgage, utilities and transportation. The agency also is providing access to counseling services, household items, food and school supplies.

In partnership with the Long Term Recovery Committee of more than a dozen organizations, Catholic Charities of St. Louis provided more than $90,000 in direct aide and will continue to provide assistance and services in the months to come. "We have restored several households to their pre-disaster condition and are working with over 70 remaining households during the process of restoration," said Tyrone D. Ford, director of service integration for Catholic Charities. "It will be a long road, but we know the importance of remaining with these families as they recover from this traumatic event."

Ford and his colleagues thank the community "for their generous support of those affected by the tornado. We, here at Catholic Charities of St. Louis, would not be able to provide the support and hope of recovery without the help of our donors." 

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