JWalkers take 7th mission trip, this time to Florida Panhandle

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Nicole Rickleff and Jon Nicholson worked together to cut lumber for one of several sets of stairs the youth group constructed for Florida Panhandle homeowners.

The JWalkers Youth Group mission trip roster included (not in order pictured): Amber Brockman, Hailey Bedward, Gracie Colson, Chase Fisher, Alexius Geisler, Brandon Hanger, Kendall Hill, Riley Hubanks, Renae Irvin, Karly Jaynes, Kori Jaynes, McKenna Keeney, Lauren Kennedy, Kennedy Kirschbaum, Peggy Koresh, Sadie Koresh, Seth MacEachern, Nick Mara, Zach Mara, Mandy Mathews, Jon Nicholson, Lindsey Nicholson, Alexis Nolan, Caitlin Nolan, Jennifer O’Connell, Jerrod Osterkamp, Mackenzie Pettit, Dominique Reilly, Nicole Rickleff, Brytta Sagedahl, Macy Sander, Paige Schneider, Clare Teynor, Colton Thompson, Gabby Toberman, Kaitlyn Waller, Kylee Weber, Keya Welch and Katy Welsch.

Father Jim Weighner used a chainsaw to start demolition of a chicken coop at one woman’s home in Chattahoochee, Fla.

By Correne Martin

The JWalkers Youth Group and the Holy Family Parish are making a difference in other parts of the United States. Since 2013, one year after the organization started, the teenagers, and their chaperones, have served week-long, yearly missions in storm ravaged communities across the country. A recent trip to the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahasee, Fla., saw their largest ever participation.

Forty high schoolers and 10 adults left Prairie du Chien June 7, and rode a Warco bus to the Florida Panhandle, to assist nine homeowners and one worship center still cleaning up and in need of repairs from Hurricanes Michael (2018) and Irma (2017).

“We were looking at where to go and thinking about Texas, when I got a phone call from the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese. She said, ‘We really need you people, but we don’t have a place for you to stay,’” JWalker leader Mary Stoeffler said. “Two weeks later, she called me again and said she totally forgot she’d rented this retreat center for [something else]. So the kids had beds and dorms to sleep in.”

The JWalkers worked with the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) while down south. This was the first year the JWalkers took their own mission trip outside of going with the La Crosse Diocese, which canceled its diocese-wide plans because of low numbers of interest.

In poor, rural communities like Gretna, Quincy, Marianna, Chattahoochee and Sneads, the youth were split between various worksites, removing debris and fallen trees, building staircases, clearing walkways, doing demolition, pulling fence, painting and conducting interior repair. 

“They said they were the forgotten people,” Stoeffler recalled of her conversations with the residents. “Our kids are already a group of youth who just get it, but they further realized how blessed they are compared to what else is out there.”

During the four days they focused on homeowners and two days they spent completely gutting the damaged Evangel Worship Center, Stoeffler said, the teens also learned that “service isn’t only about doing, it’s about taking time to talk to people who need companionship.”

“We were there for clean up, but the kids all took turns going into the homes and talking with the people,” she explained. “One woman had undergone 55 surgeries and survived four different cancers. Some of them have health conditions, or they’re older and don’t leave their homes very often, so they get lonely. I told them they were evangelizing more than they even knew.”

Every evening during the mission trip, the youth participated in worship, ate together and debriefed by talking about their day. 

Joining the group was Father Jim Weighner, who has ministered Holy Family for 10 years but is leaving the church at the end of June. He got his hands dirty helping at the worksites and, of course, led the spiritual journey with mass each night. 

“We are so grateful to Father Weighner, his support of this group and the guidance he has brought these young people,” Stoeffler stated.

The Florida camp manager, in fact, expressed how special the Prairie du Chien group was. In a letter to Father Weighner, she said, “Your group brought hope and Christ’s love to this community. ... No job was too big or too small for them.”

She described them as a “remarkable” group who treated the community members with “much love and respect.”

Stoeffler had no doubt her JWalkers would act so respectably. 

“Their attitude, the minute they got on the bus, was amazing the entire time. There was not one issue, not one weak link,” Stoeffler said, noting that 32 girls even shared four bathrooms without complaint. “They learned a lot about themselves and that life is tough. They saw the difference in what they did.”

In total, there were 11 seniors on the trip. All 40 of the kids were from Prairie du Chien except two. 

The cost to go was $500 per youth, though active JWalkers members paid half. For those  who were on their fourth consecutive trip, it was only $125. Meals were included and chaperones attended free, thanks to the group’s fund, which the parish, Knights of Columbus and Parish Council of Catholic Women. There was an additional cost for staying in the retreat center, but the parishioners picked up that expense, Stoeffler said. Plus, 3M donated all the necessary respiration masks and safety glasses.

The JWalkers returned to Wisconsin June 14, more mature, exhausted and with hearts full of joy, according to their fearless leader. They are encouraged to continue their service around their home community, and many will as continued youth group members who give of themselves all year long. 

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