NEW ROADS - Camille Comeaux spent a muggy, buggy night lying outside on a sheet of cardboard instead of tucked in her own cozy bed.
“It helped me realize I’m very fortunate to have four walls and a roof over my head.” said Comeaux, 16, a student at St. Joseph’s Academy.
Comeaux, who attends Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, was among 30 area Catholic teens who participated this month in “Real World Service Camp.”
Sponsored by St. Mary of False River Church of New Roads and Holy Ghost Catholic Church of Hammond, the camp, in its fourth year, teaches teens the basic principles of Catholic social teachings, explained Emily Froeba, St. Mary’s youth minister and director of religious formation.
“A lot of these kids don’t really see the world around them, and this kind of camp gets them out of their comfort zone,” Froeba said. “We want to show them how they can change the world when they grow up.”
For six days the teens learned spiritual and social lessons.
They listened to people who have suffered homelessness, served the less fortunate at the St. Vincent de Paul and Missionaries of Charity soup kitchens, prayed outside of abortion clinics, spent a night outdoors as a homeless person might and worked for minimum wage to buy their own food.
Service projects were conducted in New Roads, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Hammond.
In order to illustrate some of the lessons, Froeba and Stephanie Clouatre Davis, director of youth ministry at Holy Ghost in Hammond, took the teens to various places around the community.
They went to a railroad track, for example, Froeba said, where the teens saw how the tracks brought prosperity to the community but also divide New Roads both socially and economically.
A farmer’s field illustrated the dignity of work, Froeba said, while a cemetery visit illustrated the importance of life.
Meredith Witty, 16, of Catholic High in Pointe Coupee, said the soup kitchen experiences really affected her.
“I learned to look at people as human beings,” Witty said. “We need to help people get back on their feet.”
The night spent outside in the courtyard of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond was the highlight - or lowlight - of the camp for many of the teens.
“Homelessness is more difficult than you would think,” said Chase Garcia, 14, a student at Livonia High School. “Sleeping in a box was very uncomfortable.”
Ben Cline, 18, will be a freshman at LSU this fall, and agreed with Garcia. “I realized how fortunate I am, and I got bit by a lot of mosquitoes!”
Michael Comeaux, 14, a student at Baton Rouge Catholic High, said his most memorable experience was “seeing how tough it is to deal with everyday life with no money.”
Kaylee Dimm, 16, of Springfield High School, said, “It gave me a lot of sympathy for people who live on the streets. I do want to change society and make it better for all people not just certain people.”
Even though they were camping inside the confines of a church property, “a lot of them were afraid,” adult counselor Chip Rocker said. “It’s one thing for them to hear stories but it’s something completely different for them to actually experience things they normally wouldn’t experience. It’s powerful!”
For an hour one day, the students intently listened to testimonies of recently released Louisiana State Penitentiary offenders at the St. Vincent de Paul lunchroom in downtown Baton Rouge.
Among the speakers was Bobby Benitez, 63.
He talked about spending 31 years in Angola after being convicted for a possession of $100 worth of heroin as a young man living in New Orleans.
Now he is jobless and nearly homeless and just recently met his now-grown son.
“When I was arrested, I had never even held him,” Benitez said with a sob that brought tears to many teens’ eyes. “Now he is a big, strong officer in the Army Rangers and has served four tours overseas.”
As an ex-offender, Benitez said he can’t find a real job and mows lawns for “eggs and milk.”
For one afternoon, the students worked at the three-story Catholic Charities refugee apartments near Baton Rouge Community College. Teens went door to door offering their services and did such chores as changing light bulbs, testing smoke alarms and washing windows.
“This is good for us and good for the community,” said San Dar, a recent refugee from Myanmar who fled persecution of Christians by his home country’s Burmese army.
“They show their love for us,” San Dar said, pointing through soapy windows to the energetic teens outside his apartment.
Froeba called the experience good for the teens.
“I think they’ve understood the importance of praying and seeing God at work,” the camp director said.
“They are seeing people more, what they are really like, as people,” added Davis, “not as a prisoner or an immigrant.”