The group from St. Augustine Parish in Andover poses for a group photo at Villanova University at the start of their February vacation mission trip to South Philadelphia. Pilot photo/courtesy Katie LeBlanc, St. Augustine Parish
For many high schools students, February vacation is a time to sleep, catch up on some episodes of "The Walking Dead," hang out with friends or just relax. But for 12 high schoolers from St. Augustine Parish in Andover, this February vacation was all about serving the less fortunate.
Under the guidance of Katie LeBlanc, the parish's youth minister, the students spent their February break in Philadelphia -- working in various shelters, food pantries and other social service organizations.
LeBlanc explained that the "Unitas mission trip," as it is called, is "based on four pillars": simple living, living in community, reflection and daily service.
For simple living, the group slept in the Aquinas Center, a community center and retreat house associated with St. Thomas Parish in South Philadelphia. To help them live in community, they group agreed to surrender their cell phones and electronic devices to LeBlanc until the week-long mission trip concluded. The reflection aspect of the trip was comprised of a daily Mass that was celebrated every morning, and an evening prayer service that concluded each night. The service component changed daily. Each day the group participated in different service projects -- from stocking shelves in a local food pantry to painting the trim of a local church, the teens took on small projects in order to effect change in the lives of others.
"We began the mission trip with a Mass and a special send-off at Villanova University," said LeBlanc, noting that each participant was given an Augustinian Mission cross that they wore for the entire week.
"Honestly, it was so wonderful," LeBlanc said. "The way these young people became a community. It totally energized me."
"It was amazing to get away and see a different city's experience," shared Abby Berthiaume, a junior at Andover High School who attended the mission trip. "Rather than sit around in my house and do nothing, it was a great way to spend my vacation week."
Berthiaume explained that the service projects were "little tasks that didn't seem like we were doing much at the time, but then when you stop and think about it, they really helped a lot of people."
The 16-year-old admitted feeling a bit trepidatious at first because she only knew two other participants on the mission trip, "but once we got in the van (in Andover) and started driving, we became best friends."
Her favorite part was "working all together in large groups," she said, because the camaraderie "made me so grateful for what I have."
Gratitude was the driving force behind Sean Maraghy's decision to attend the mission trip.
A senior at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Maraghy had been on mission trips led by LeBlanc before -- most notably last February vacation when LeBlanc took a small group of youth on a Unitas mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
On this trip, not having his cell phone was tough at first, he admitted.
"Once I got over the initial 'Oh-I-can't-talk-to-my-friends-thing' I realized this was helping me to stay focused and to get to know the people on this trip better," he said. "Then I saw it was a good thing."
His favorite memory of this mission trip was the final day in which the entire group helped stock shelves in a large food pantry.
"We came together," he recalled. "We had the most fun that day, because even though we started off not really knowing each other, by that day we were really a community."
Both Maraghy and Berthiaume agree that LeBlanc is the driving force behind the success of the mission trip.
"Katie really makes the trip," said Maraghy. "She just has unlimited energy."
"She is the perfect person to go on these trips," agreed Berthiaume. "She brings so much joy. She made the entire mission trip so much better because of the energy she brings to it."
As for LeBlanc, she will continue to plan Unitas mission trips -- including one scheduled for the end of June where teens will spend four days sleeping in a retreat house in North Andover and serving the needy in the local community.
"I'm hoping to teach them how to serve at home and serve abroad as well," she said, noting that the Unitas mission trips are a way to involve teens that have already been confirmed.
"After Confirmation, there's a sense of 'What do you do after?' There's no more religious ed classes, there's no more teachers, so many times they are left wondering, 'What can I do and where can I go to use these gifts that I have been given?'" she said. "These mission trips provide a way to involve them."