By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A serenity that often accompanies a leisurely outing in a southeast Louisiana swamp was abruptly interrupted when a snake suddenly appeared on the side of the canoe in which Kathleen Helms was paddling.

The snake did not sliver its way into the canoe, but seeing a snake for the first time certainly left its mark on the Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School junior. Helms, seeing a live snake for the first time, admitted she was too busy trying to get away for fear to set in.

But the experience was one of many she and 11 of her Cristo Rey classmates and a total of 25 students from around the country shared during Loyola University’s Faith Acts summer program, held for one week at its uptown New Orleans campus. Through practical real life experiences, such as visiting the Lower 9th Ward and seeing areas that still have not recovered from the ravage of Hurricane Katrina to helping an elderly woman plant a vegetable garden, the students learned lifelong lessons about trust, faith and providing for the less fortunate.

“Being with people whose houses are messed up (in the Lower 9th Ward), and (helping) older people made me look at things differently,” Helms said. “When I see older people, I help them with their groceries, asking them if they need things.

“It helped me understand a lot of things but at the same time I felt if I do certain things (by helping others) things would be different.”

Materrinan Zehyoue, Faith Acts youth coordinator for the Loyola Institute for Ministry, said the program is a seven-day, residential youth theology institute for rising high school juniors and seniors. She said the focus is on environmental sustainability and the call for Catholics to care for the earth.

Zehyoue said the week is centered on “Laudato Si,” the encyclical letter Pope Francis wrote in 2015.

Upon returning to Baton Rouge, Cristo Rey junior Meleyah Murphy, based on her experience, is committed to launching environmentally friendly projects, including establishing a community garden that would involve friends and peers.

Murphy admitted to being stunned by the conditions she found in the Lower 9th Ward, including the conditions of the roads and even the trees that are dying. Perhaps leaving even a more lasting impression was helping an elderly woman clean up the five vegetable gardens she maintains.

The lady told the youth she had requested assistance from several companies but they all refused.

“I was thinking ‘What would Jesus do?’ ” she said. “He would help people and to spread his word, spreading his word through nature.”

Asiah Mason, also a Cristo Rey junior, said the lady was “so appreciative” of the help, but for Mason the seeds planted will sow benefits far beyond a Lower 9th Ward garden. She said she learned to appreciate assisting people, not just for the money but “helping people to let God in your heart.”

“No one does a garden but I want to start one,” Mason said, adding that her grandfather is starting to grow his own tomatoes. “Instead of us buying vegetables and have all of those chemicals, you have natural grown vegetables.”

All three of the students agreed the week helped deepen their own spiritual lives. Murphy said she learned to keep an open mind, be accepting of others and always look for the good in others.

“I was already close to God but it helped me draw even closer to him,” she added. “My goal this  (school) year is to tell people to come (in 2019).”

Mason said her lesson was rooted in trust, to trust others and to always have faith.

Helms said the week brought her closer to God and provided an understanding in many areas of life, including stewardship of the environment. She said counselors discussed such topics as recycling and water use.

“We can use that a lot in our community to make it better,” she said.

In addition to living on a college campus for a week and learning a variety of disciplines, Zehyoue noted the students had the option to earn either 60 service hours or three college credits.

She added this year was the second of the Faith Acts Institute which is funded from a Lily Foundation grant.