Instead of spending their first week of summer vacation at the beach or playing video games, a group of students from St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples put their classroom lessons to work when they participated in a weeklong Immokalee Service Retreat.
The group travelled about 40 minutes from their school to Immokalee, a short physical distance but it was a long spiritual journey that surprised many in how deeply it impacted them.
Each of the 21 students learned about the Collier County community that is home to many farms and food processing facilities and is also one of the poorest in the country.
Throughout the week of May 30-June 2, 2023, the students spent each day assisting at different outreach facilities such as Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, the Pepper Ranch Preserve, Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee, and the Guadalupe Center.
The annual service trip was organized and led by Sisters April Cabaccang and Nicole Daley, Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, both of whom are on the faculty at St. John Neumann. To start the week, they prayed each student would gain a renewed sense of Christian Service from their experience.
The theme for the week was based on a quote from Pope Francis to youth – “Young friends, don’t wait until tomorrow to contribute your energy, your audacity, and your creativity to changing our world. You are the NOW of God.”
The enthusiasm of the students to put Catholic Social Teaching into practice was reflected in the effort and care they put into each task they were assigned.
When the week began, the students were unsure how the retreat would impact them as most had never been to Immokalee or even heard of the plight of the people there.
Kale Van Wart needed service hours and had heard about what fun the week would be. The reality was a profound experience that impacted Kale more than he expected.
“I thought we would be doing more fun things, but I have really enjoyed doing the hard work,” Kale said. “Seeing how people live each day in such poverty makes you want to do more. I also realize we are making a small difference and that is important.”
Tasks throughout the week included students painting ceilings and picnic tables, clearing branches and shrubs, and picking up trash. Other times they served and sorted food, spent time with preschool children and more.
When not out working, the students stayed in a dormitory at Ave Maria University, just south of Immokalee. Each day included Mass at Ave Maria Parish, morning and evening prayer as well as time for reflections and the group sharing about their experiences. There was also time for some fun and games.
The students also heard from people who shared their knowledge about the needs of the community. One of the speakers was a Neumann graduate who attended the service week in 2019, and another was from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group which fights for the right of farmworkers locally and nationwide.
When helping at Pathways Early Childhood Center the students learned that the lunch the children receive each day is likely the only food they will have access to all day. At Guadalupe Social Services, students helped in the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen and with the food pantry.
Anna Leigh Walker said the retreat helped her grow in her faith and in understanding the importance of giving back to the community in thanks for the gifts she has received in her life, provided by Christ.
“This week we have heard a lot about hardships and sad lifestyles that the population of Immokalee face. However, we have also been able to experience how many people come together to make all of these organizations happen,” Anna Leigh said.
St. John Neumann students volunteer thousands of hours each year throughout Collier County. The 2023 graduates completed 12,350 service hours in their four years.
Sister April said the week is much more than service hours earned and being with friends. “It is about developing a desire to serve others and that when we serve, we are serving Jesus in the people we encounter.”
For more information about St. John Neumann Catholic High School, please call 239-455-3044 or visit www.sjnceltics.org.