By Sister Mary Jean Williams, OP
Director of Mission Integration, Regina Dominican High School
October 23, 2017, Wilmette, Illinois – The concepts of giving back, living simply, and building community took on real-life, first-hand meaning for nine incoming Regina Dominican seniors in the summer of 2017, when they spent a week at Jerusalem Farm, a small intentional community in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jerusalem Farm strives to transform lives through service retreat experiences, sustainable living, and home repair. The Regina Dominican group is one of many Catholic groups from around the United States that spend time during the summer at the urban farm community that is based on four pillars: prayer, service, community, and simplicity.
“Students were able to put their lessons in Catholic social teaching into action throughout the week alongside other high school students,” said Kasey Bree, Theology Department Chairperson at Regina Dominican and a chaperone at the farm. “The girls didn’t want to leave.”
While at Jerusalem Farm, the students participated in service projects in surrounding neighborhoods during the day, and spent time in prayer and came together as a community during the evenings. They were joined by a couple, their two children, and several other adults who live full-time at the farm.
Regina Dominican student Kelly French, making her second summer trip to the farm, said the experience gave her a better understanding of the importance of giving back.
“I think when people hear ‘service trip’ they immediately think going out of the country, but it’s eye-opening going to a city so close and similar to where we live and seeing that there is service to do no matter where you are, and so many lives to touch by doing so,” Kelly said. “Living with people for a week who are so passionate about serving their community makes it easy to do that with them, but it makes you want to bring those actions home with you and spread to the people around you, which isn’t as easy, but in the end is worth it.”
Regina student Gianna Sparacio described Jerusalem Farms as “a never-ending smile. If I could put J-farm into a couple of sentences, it would be a place where love, compassion, and happiness fill you. It is a community you will always be a part of.”
Simplicity is the order of the day for those who work at the farm, intended to serve as a means to center attention on those around them with whom they were forming community, and those they were serving. Among other things, that meant the students refrained from cell phone usage, watches, and other electronics. They took one normal and two “bucket showers” during the week. Food salvaging, recycling, and working the earth with their hands were also a part of the experience, as the students learned about the importance of sustainability and stewardship of Earth.
“It can be very shocking for the girls,” Bree said, but “it made them more aware of their impact on the environment.”
The “rejection of extreme consumerism,” she added, helped produce a “joyful experience” as the girls “completely bought in.”
For Gianna, the experience was an opportunity to live outside her comfort zone. “The only way you can grow as a person is when you’re uncomfortable outside of it,” she said. “And I did [grow]. My outlook on life, people, God, myself, and so many other things changed completely after J-Farm,” she said.
The week was also a strong bonding experience, Bree said. “I saw a lot of positivity,” she added. “There was a unique bond that formed with that shared experience.”
A highlight for Kelly was making new friendships with students of a school from California that shared the week with Regina Dominican. “We all would get in huge debates about our Chicago accents and how we pronounce things differently,” she recalled. “It was honestly a debate that we would never solve, but it was hilarious watching everyone go back and forth about how we say random words or foods.”
Mealtime with the other residents was Gianna’s favorite part of the day. “We all talked and laughed and for every meal we sat by someone we hadn’t before,” she said. “I think that was the coolest thing, how open we all became. It was the moments like these that were pure bliss.”
Labor provided by residents and visitors to the farm is free, but homeowners are asked to pay for building materials if they’re able. The group’s operating budget primarily comes from the per person fee they charge to volunteer groups, like the Regina Dominican, that eat, sleep, and work at the farm for a week. The farm hosts such groups about 16 weeks a year.
The Regina Dominican trip to Jerusalem Farm will be an annual summer opportunity for sophomore and junior students, Bree said.
Funds from the Adrian Dominican Sisters Sponsorship Grant helped Regina Dominican purchase a van like the one in which the students traveled to Jerusalem Farm. Shown are, back row, from left, Mrs. Kasey Aust, Nikki Thanas, Reilly Becker, Mrs. Pam Cassidy, Murphy Weiland, and Kendall Barrett, and front row, from left, Kelly French, Grace Owens, Emma Dinderdale, Gianna Sparacio, and Collen Waltman.