by Kevin J. McKeon, Partner
Except for those “fun” days when I get to be in court, arbitration or mediation, much of my work as a construction lawyer is accomplished in a drywall box with a window that we call an “office.” But this Summer, I got to spend a week with my tool belt on, and swinging my old 22 oz. Estwing framing hammer while replacing a roof with a bunch of service-minded teenagers who had left their phones, tablets and computers at home for the week.
Our roof job was one of more than 150 similar projects performed by more than 800 high school kids and some 400 adult volunteers from 41 parishes during the week-long 2016 WorkCamp for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington here in Northern Virginia. The WorkCamp is generally regarded as the biggest and most successful in the United States. The theme was “Show Know Mercy,” taking inspiration from Luke 6:36 (“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”) and Matthew 5:7 (“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”).
After arriving at Massaponax High School (between DC and Richmond) just after dinner on Saturday, the kids and other adult crew leaders like me set up camp. My daughter, Reagan, joined another girl from our parish and a female crew leader in the “females only”-area on the second floor of the school, while I moved in with ten boys from our parish in a classroom on the first floor. When a friend of mine convinced me that volunteering as an adult crew leader would be a “blast,” he neglected to tell me that part of the experience would involve sleeping on the floor, in a classroom with poor air conditioning, and sharing the space with a bunch of high school boys. Sometimes the smell reminded me of my time in the wrestling room at my old high school in Pennsylvania!
Saturday night we had our first evening program. The massive gym was set up as if for a Rolling Stones concert, with a 3-part stage, and 3 movie screens. As we walked in and enjoyed the cool of the air conditioning and the light show, there was a Christian rock band playing…loudly. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought. I could tell that many of the “cool” kids seemed to feel the same way. It was amazing how that attitude changed through the week, and how we all really enjoyed getting to know and listen to the music of John Hopke and his band.
The program at night was always entertaining and enriching. One night included a live game show called “Will it Smoothie???!!” (what can you put in a blender and get high school kids to drink), while another night featured a beat-boxing, break dancing, and rapping performance by “Fr. Jewel and the Lost Sheep” (see some video on Twitter @arlingtonyouth from June 30). Each night also included inspiring, humorous talks by Katie Prejean, a dynamic, young Catholic speaker who obviously connected with the kids. But universally, the most powerful night included a public rosary, 3 hours of quiet Eucharistic Adoration, and some 1000 kids and adults going to confession.
Throughout the week, I was responsible for leading 5 teenagers that I met for the first time on Sunday morning for some team-building. My idea of team-building is a golf scramble foursome, but we were all encouraged to “Lean Into It” during the week: if scared of heights – climb a ladder; if no rhythm for dancing – move your feet anyway. So even by the end of Sunday, I knew the kids well, and they knew me too. I decided not to let them know, however, that I’m a construction lawyer, so all week they looked for clues and came up with some guesses. I was proud that most of them thought I was actually a contractor!
Each morning started by “putting the Mass in Massaponax:” a morning mass, followed by breakfast on the go, and then off to the work sites before 8 AM. I had to make sure my crew was properly harnessed up on the roof, and drank plenty of water throughout the day. I was paired up with Joe Gilfoil, a contractor-volunteer who happened to be a Project Manager for a local steel fabricator so we enjoyed swapping stories about dealing with our favorite engineers throughout the week. We kept working safely and diligently, and literally finished with the ridge cap and clean up right on schedule on Thursday afternoon. No changes, delays or claims.
WorkCamp concluded on Friday morning with a celebration in the gym. By this time, it felt like all 1200+ of us somehow knew each other, and one of the highlights that day included many kids taking the stage to talk about how the experience had changed them: no cell phones, sleeping on the floor, morning mass every day, hard work in service of others all day, much like the early Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles. Many described how having no cell phone for the week was actually a blessing, and caused them to truly connect with the other workcampers.
The other highlight from the closing celebration was the appearance of the many people who benefited from the projects. An hijab-wearing Muslim mother of four young kids who had been put out by her husband took the microphone and tearfully thanked the kids for the work they did on her trailer, while a minister from a United Pentecostal Church explained how the new wheelchair ramp the kids built for his church would allow so many more people to attend services. One of the residents thanked the kids by belting out “God Blessed the Broken Road” to thunderous applause.
When we arrived back at home that evening, Reagan found it hard to explain the week’s events to my wife Tiffany and my younger kids without tearing up. In short, we had “leaned into it,” and came away with a deeper faith and inspired for the future to see what this younger generation will do in service of others.