Students come to town to help others

URBANA — Five students from around the country spent the week painting in an Urbana attic, getting to know each other, singing along with recorded music and spending time with Claire Douglas, the homeowner hosting them.

The attic room hadn't been painted since the 1970s, Douglas said, which was helpful to her because she couldn't have done it otherwise.

But her newfound connection with the students became more important than the work they were doing. She connected with them during their morning prayer or at lunch on her back patio.

"The fact that something has happened in their families or their church or their hearts that has directed them to serve others is truly remarkable," Douglas said.

The students were among more than 300 in staying in Champaign this week as a part of the Catholic HEART Workcamp. They slept in classrooms at the High School of St. Thomas More — young women on the second floor, young men on the first floor — and attended Mass each morning.

They spent the week helping residents in Champaign, Urbana, Monticello, Tolono, Savoy, Rantoul, Danville and Oakwood.

Douglas connected with the students attending the camp through Faith in Action, a nonprofit nationally affiliated with the National Volunteer Caregiver Network.

Locally, it's housed at Presence Covenant Medical Center, and the organization is just one of many local agencies that helps those attending the local Catholic HEART Workcamp connect with local residents who could use some help, said Doretta Herr, Presence's community benefit and program coordinator.

Many other local nonprofits work with the camp to identify residents in need as well.

Catholic HEART started in 1993 in Florida, said Mahomet resident Mickey Nickrent, who manages the camp with her husband and the help of other family members and church volunteers from Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahomet.

It's the sixth year for the local camp, Nickrent said. This year, the camp had 48 teams of teenagers serving the community.

"They're doing all kinds of different things: yard work, painting, light carpentry, helping clean and organize," Nickrent said. Each group includes five to seven students and an adult volunteer.

The students need to be at least high school freshmen and can be as old as 20 to participate. Each student paid more than $300 to come to camp to work for others, she said, and some youth groups have been raising money since last August to attend.

The camp also features a nightly evening program, and Thursday night, the camp's last, the students invited the homeowners they worked with this week to share their thoughts.

"It's a pretty powerful night," Nickrent said. "It's nice for them to hear the feedback, to hear how appreciative people are."

Mahomet resident Samantha Rochnowski, who is 15 and attends Our Lady of the Lake, attended the camp this year and worked at Douglas' home all week.

She said she's been enjoying meeting the others attending, and has spent time with students from Arkansas, Minnesota, Kansas and Texas. She has also enjoyed getting to know Douglas, she said.

"Working with others is so good to do," Rochnowski said, and she especially enjoys seeing their progress when painting.

"It would just be amazing to see how much we did in a couple of hours," she said.

Justin Rogers, who's 15 and lives in Waconia, Minn., is attending his second year of the work camp, his first in Champaign-Urbana. He has liked spending time with other teens from his own church and getting to know others.

"People from other churches are really nice," he said. "You can socialize with almost anyone."

He finds the work rewarding.

"You get more out of it than you put into it," he said.

Bailey Tipton is 15 and rode a bus 19 hours with her schoolmates from St. Agnes Academy in Houston, Texas, to attend the camp.

"I just really love serving," she said, and it also makes her grandpa proud when she does.

Meanwhile, Douglas said she has loved opening her back door this week to "all these young, earnest, smiling faces."

"It's a fantastic way to start my day," she said. "I will miss them."

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