MOUNT CARMEL — The Mother Maria Kaupas Center strives to teach young people valuable life lessons through its annual winter service program, which recently completed its fourth year. It allows a group of college students to participate in community projects that help them develop skills and build relationships through serving others.

The 10 students who took part this year were selected from seven colleges and universities. They are all members of either Divine Redeemer, Our Lady of Mount Carmel or SS Peter and Paul Catholic parishes in Mount Carmel or Holy Angels, Kulpmont.

"The objective of this program is in keeping with the center's basic mission of encouraging young Catholics to live lives of leadership and service in the church and their community," said Kaupas director Jake Betz.

Betz said students must submit an application, complete an essay and be approved for participation by their pastor. Once selected, they meet collectively and are tasked to work in groups on projects coordinated through the Kaupas Center.

They took 10 days out of their Christmas break to participate in this year's program in late December and early January; seven of the students had previously been involved.

Community service projects

A number of students spent a day cooking and delivering soup made at the Kaupas Center to 15 people, including shut-ins. 

At the Mount Carmel Food Pantry, students helped distribute non-perishable food to needy individuals. They were also involved with organization and clean-up at the pantry.

They also helped in the downtown, said Cathy Besser, president of Mount Carmel Downtown Inc. (MCDI).

"They're a great group of young people and hard workers," she said. "We gave them a number of projects to do for us downtown and they all stepped up and did whatever we asked of them."

Besser said students took down Hometown Heroes banners and washed them, and removed dead vegetation from sidewalk planters.

"We look forward to having them come each year. There are many things downtown that we need to do and their help is greatly appreciated," she said.

LIFE Geisinger

At LIFE Geisinger in Kulpmont, the students interacted with patients and staff, including playing bingo.

"I'm a big pusher for inter-generational things," said LIFE Geisinger activities director Paul Conniff. "They didn't have to be here but wanted to be a part of helping encourage others and make them feel better."

Conniff said he could tell the students had a good upbringing by the respect and kindness they showed.

Serenity Gardens

Jennifer Fischer, Serenity Gardens activities director, said  the students sang Christmas carols with residents.

"It was fun because there was a little competition going on this year between our residents and the students to see which group could sing the loudest," she said.

"I believe that the Kaupas Winter Service Program is a great concept," she added, "and hopefully even more people and organizations will want to participate in the future. I think it brings the community together."

Elderly residents at Serenith Gardens had an opportunity to interact with the young people and do things they may not otherwise be involved in.

"After the singing this year, we also enjoyed an ice cream social together," she said.

Pastoral comments

The Rev. Frank Karwacki, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, spoke about on the 'blessing" of having young people willing to serve their church and community.

"It's a wonderful program for the students over Christmas break," he said.

At the church this year, they worked with the church secretary to accomplish various tasks, he said.

Rev. Michael Hutsko, of Saints Peter and Paul Church, was also pleased with the contributions of the participants.

"They helped decorate our Centralia parish and also accompanied me on several home visits," he said. "Their service to the community has helped change people's lives for the better and it's greatly admired and appreciated."

Rewards beyond money

Each student received a stipend of $300 for their 10 days of service. An additional $100 was presented to the student selected for the Dolores Orzel Spirit and Leadership Award, which focuses on promoting gospel values and showing exceptional leadership throughout the program. This year'srecipient was Michael P. Vincenzes, of Atlas, a senior at Penn State University. 

Vincenzes, a son of Lisa and Jody Vincenzes, is a member of Church of the Holy Angels, Kulpmont. This was his second year as a participant.

““Through the program, I learned about Mother Maria Kaupas’ motto, ‘Always more, always better, always with love,'" he said. "As I advance in my college career, I will follow her philosophy.”

The value of participation in the winter service program far exceeds any monetary gifts which they receive, students said.

"I'm used to volunteering at my home church (Holy Angels) and this type of work puts a smile on my face, seeing how what we're doing encourages and lifts up others," said Sean Fisher, a senior at Susquehanna University.

Lee Amarose, a Lebanon Valley College senior and member of Divine Redeemer parish, spoke of what it meant to help brighten the day of patients at LIFE Geisinger.

"This is both a rewarding and humbling experience," he said.

Several students spoke of how the program helps them in the pursuit of their college degrees, while establishing new connections and opening doors of opportunity. 

Amanda Horan, a freshman criminal justice major at Bloomsburg University, spoke of her desire to make a difference in her career.

"I've done volunteer work ever since high school. Now in college, I'm majoring in criminal justice and plan on using my degree to help make a difference for good wherever I serve," said Horan, who is also a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish.

Alyssa Menko, a West Chester University sophomore, said, "Last winter break I felt like I didn't utilize my free time well. It's nice to be able to come home, do something positive while making new connections through this program and actively helping others."

"I'm a nursing major," said Sydney Casey, a senior at Bloomsburg University and member of Saints Peter and Paul Church. "Giving back to the community is a large part of what I'll be doing in my profession, which involves a dedication to help heal others."

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