After almost falling several times, Shank had mostly stopped going outside — a neighbor said she hadn’t seen Shank walk to check the mailbox in weeks. Shank and her 63-year-old daughter, Linda Mountjoy, who also lives in the trailer, knew the situation was untenable but — both unemployed and living on Social Security — lacked the funds to repair the ramp.
Their deliverance came in the form of nine teenagers.
From Monday to Thursday, the high-school-aged volunteers — armed with hammers, power saws and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches — descended on Shank’s property at 9 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. to salvage the ramp, build a new back porch and install a skirt around the base of the trailer to keep the trailer warmer and keep out nesting skunks. The students had traveled to Stafford as part of WorkCamp, a week-long initiative run every year by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington that puts local youths to work making the homes of low-income diocese residents warmer, safer and drier.
“I don’t know what we’d do without them,” Shank said in an interview Wednesday, rocking slightly in an armchair in her living room as the teenagers hammered nails into wood and painted varnish on the ramp outside. “I just think they’re wonderful people.”
Her daughter chimed in. “I can’t tell you how much it means that people will actually come and do this work for us,” Mountjoy said. “We’re Baptists, they’re Catholic, but it doesn’t matter because we all believe in the Lord.”
Shank and Mountjoy were among 135 households serviced during this year’s iteration of WorkCamp, which involved about 830 teens.
Crews of five to 10 high school students — accompanied by at least one adult chaperon and a contractor with engineering experience — spread out across eight counties in Central and Northern Virginia starting last Monday to complete assignments such as repairing a disabled man’s roof, and painting and weatherproofing a house owned by a single father with six children. Each teenager had to raise $500 to earn a spot.
WorkCamp is immersive. Student volunteers are required to leave their cellphones at home. At the start of the week, the high schoolers — along with hundreds of adult chaperons and several religious leaders — move into Massaponax High School in Spotsylvania County, where they sleep on cots or in sleeping bags in classrooms and wait in long lines for showers.
Pausing as she sawed a wooden post in Stafford, 15-year-old Amanda Swall recalled one time when, covered in streaks of cement after a long day at the trailer, she spent 45 minutes waiting to get into the bathroom. Swall said WorkCamp forced her to learn how to be patient.
Bishop Michael Burbidge, who leads the diocese, said the program teaches teenagers that they have the power to make a concrete improvement in the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.
It also strengthens the teenagers’ faith by bringing them together with other practicing Catholics their age, he said. WorkCamp participants attend morning Mass, go to confession and listen to nightly presentations about Catholicism and how to serve their neighbors.
Burbidge said it can be difficult to be young and religious in America today. Religious disaffection has soared among the nation’s youngest citizens in recent years; a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that roughly a quarter of Americans under 30 identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
“We really find that youth sometimes do feel isolated in schools and communities because of their faith — there is a price to pay for it, they’re unfairly labeled or rejected or ridiculed,” Burbidge said. “So it’s great to be in an environment, even just for a week, where everyone is of one heart and one mind.”
When WorkCamp launched almost two decades ago in 1990, it was much smaller — in its first year, the program boasted 20 teenage volunteers. It was briefly dubbed “Hammer Time,” which “kind of dates it right there,” said program director Kevin Bohli, referring to 1990s-era rapper M.C. Hammer.
Bohli first got involved with WorkCamp in 1995 as a volunteer and took over as director in 2001. He enjoys celebrity status among the teenagers: they chant his full name, “Ke-vin Boh-li,” when he mounts the stage to make announcements at campwide assemblies.
When Bohli stopped by the Stafford worksite Wednesday, students assembling the back porch started chanting his name almost as soon as they saw him — but in whispers, so as not to disturb Shank’s neighbors.
Bohli calls the attention “embarrassing” but says it’s indicative of how volunteers at WorkCamp feel like they are part of one large family by the end of the week. (At this point he paused the interview to dart forward and warn 17-year-old Anne Hansen to keep her long brown hair away from the exposed blade of a power tool.) When camp staff assign participants to construction crews, they always place teenagers with people they did not know beforehand, Bohli said. The goal is to forge lasting friendships between strangers.
Christopher Gaietto, 18, said “it’s crazy” how close he’s gotten to the other students working on Shank’s trailer in just four days. Minutes later, he popped a Cheeto into Swall’s mouth.
Mary Walker, the chaperon at the Stafford site, said she’s seen the teenagers change in other ways, too. She noted the students complain less and have stopped asking to order from Chipotle or Starbucks, content with the cheap sandwiches they eat for lunch every day “in solidarity” with the low-income residents whose homes they are repairing.
“It makes them see that they’re not the center of the world. It takes them out of their comfort zone,” Walker said.
Nearby, Hansen, warily eyeing a plank of wood she was supposed to split, turned to Swall and asked, “Can I do this?” Swall told her she “absolutely” could — and Hansen picked up the power saw.