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A camp with HEART: Catholic HEART Workcamp brings more than 80 youth to town for missions projects

Spencer Hager and Brady Labine, both of Detroit Lakes, have participated in multiple Catholic HEART Workcamps -- Labine even worked for the organization this summer. They both say the experiences they've had at camp have changed their lives, making them feel happier and more fulfilled. Marie Johnson / Tribune1 / 4
Catholic HEART Workcamp brought 87 different people to Detroit Lakes this week from six different youth groups from parishes in Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota. The campers, who included 16-year-olds Kelsey Gramins of Vernon Hills, Ill., and Rachel Knox of Brooklyn Park, Minn., left and center, as well as Jim Underhill of Monroe City, Mo., performed community service work at homes and businesses around town. Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 4
Avery Abell, 17, of Hallsville, Mo., trims a hedge at a home in Detroit Lakes on Tuesday as part of her Catholic HEART Workcamp community service assignment. Marie Johnson / Tribune3 / 4
Seventeen-year-old Aidan Afonso, of Vernon Hills, Ill., piles brush at a Detroit Lakes home as part of his Catholic HEART Workcamp service assignment. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 4

When Brady Labine traveled to Colorado Springs, Col., a couple years back to assist with cleanup efforts following the 2013 Black Forest Fire—one of the state's most massive and destructive fires in history—he didn't realize just how much the experience would impact him.

Labine spent days amongst the devastation left in the fire's wake. He saw with his own eyes the new homes that had been built where old ones had burned down. He smelled the lingering ashy aroma of the hundreds of dead trees still strewn about the ground, and with his own two hands he helped pile those trees up for the logging companies to haul away. He talked to local residents whose lives were forever altered by the blaze. He felt their emotional mix of painful loss and fresh beginnings.

After he left to return home to Detroit Lakes, he said, "I cried all the way back on the bus ride."

"It was a very humbling experience," he added.

Labine had gone to Colorado as part of the Catholic HEART Workcamp, a national program that coordinates community service-centered trips for Catholic youth. With a mission of "service, connection and loving others," the program originated in Orlando, Fla., in 1993, and has since grown to include more than 14,000 teens and adults from parish youth groups from all over the country.

Two of those groups are here in Detroit Lakes, from Holy Rosary Catholic Church and St. Mary of the Lakes. The groups take weeklong Catholic HEART Workcamp service trips every summer, and also host a local camp for visiting groups from other cities and states.

This year, the Detroit Lakes camp has brought 87 people from six different youth groups to town, said Gary Hager, a Holy Rosary Deacon and leader of the local camp. Those groups, here this week, July 9-13, come from parishes in Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota.

While they're here, one of the Detroit Lakes groups is at a camp in St. Louis. The other went to New Orleans in early June.

No matter where the kids go, their mission is always the same: "Love. Serve. Connect." According to the Catholic HEART Workcamp's website, service opportunities are designed to "restore homes and hearts, feed the hungry, lift the spirits of children, bring joy to the elderly and disabled, and offer assistance while partnering with social agencies."

In Detroit Lakes this year, that means painting, trimming hedges and performing other odd jobs at multiple homes in town, as well as helping out at the Lakes Crisis Center and the Boys & Girls Club and its accompanying thrift store. Hager said the camp works with Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership to get recommendations about where their help is needed.

The visiting campers stay at Detroit Lakes High School while they're here, with the boys sleeping on one floor and the girls on another. They eat meals there, attend a morning Mass and one or two scheduled programs each day, take part in fun activities like games and skits, share stories, pray and reflect, and more—all in addition to their daily community service work.

Aidan Afonso, a 17-year-old from Vernon Hills, Ill., who's in Detroit Lakes for the camp this week, said the annual trips are "one of the biggest things" his home parish partakes in.

"I have this week circled on my calendar every year," said the fourth-time camper. "It's important to give back to communities... It's one of the most important things I've got going on."

One of Afonso's team members, Avery Abell, also 17, of Hallsville, Mo., agreed: "Catholic HEART is one of the best experiences and opportunities that I've had, because there's a lot of learning and growth that come out of it, and it rejuvenates your connection with God and gets you close to him again."

Once the kids arrive at a camp destination, they're split into teams made up of youth group members from other parishes, to create new connections and encourage relationship-building.

Detroit Lakes has hosted a Catholic HEART Workcamp every summer since 2012. Local youth took several trips to other camps through the organization prior to that, and eventually their adult leaders "decided it was time to bring it to Detroit Lakes," Hager said.

Hager was one of those originators, along with Sue Livermore and Sheila Welle. Since that first year in 2012, he said, "we've probably had over 1,100 people come to camp—some multiple times. We've probably helped 150 residents."

Despite a good run, this will be the last year of camp in Detroit Lakes. Hager said there just aren't the numbers to support it anymore. Detroit Lakes is one of the most off-the-beaten-path locations within the Catholic HEART Workcamp network, and that sometimes deters groups from traveling here.

The camp will be missed, but the 25 to 30 or so local kids who partake in the Catholic HEART program will still be able to travel to other camp locations. Their travels are funded through monthly free-will breakfasts and other youth group fundraisers at St. Mary's and Holy Rosary, as well as out of the families' own pockets. It costs about $700 per youth to attend the camp (about half of that is for travel expenses).

It sounds like a lot of money, but according to the kids who would know best, it's well worth it.

"You're paying money to help people, and it's the best thing I've ever done," said Labine.

Labine, who is now a sophomore at St. John's University, grew up attending Holy Rosary Catholic Church and was active with the Catholic HEART Workcamp as a teen, traveling to Colorado Springs and Denver, as well as Memphis, Tenn. He's still active with the organization—in fact, this summer, he became an employee of Catholic HEART, spending weeks in Georgia, North Carolina and Delaware as part of a month-long stint as a camp facilitator.

"It's the service and the giving," he said of what keeps him involved year after year. "There's nothing more satisfying than building a relationship with a resident and being able to help them."

Spencer Hagen, a Detroit Lakes High School junior, echoes Labine's sentiments.

"I like giving back," he said. "It's fun to go and change people's lives for a week."

Hagen has traveled to New Orleans, Detroit, Colorado Springs and Billings, Mont. for Catholic HEART Workcamps. He's helped clean schools, rebuild forests and beautify homes, among other things, and he said he's made friends and lasting memories in the process.

"It's definitely changed my life in a lot of ways," he said. "I've changed and grown... It's impacted my spiritual life. It's made me a lot happier."

Like Labine, Hagen said the camp in Colorado Springs has been the most memorable for him. One of his tasks there was to replant pine trees on a mountaintop that had been burnt out by the Black Forest Fire.

"We ended up planting all 400 trees they had," he said. "It was cool to know that we changed the landscape, the area and region. That we could come back in 20 years and see those trees grown up."

For more information about Catholic HEART Workcamps, visit

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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