Parish youth spend summer serving migrant farmworker families in Skagit Valley

  • Written by Megan Carroll
  • Published in Local
Francis Sharp, a member of the youth group at St. Michael Parish in Olympia, works in the Tri-Parish Food Bank at St. Charles Parish in Burlington as part of the summertime Youth Migrant Project. Photo: Stephen Brashear Francis Sharp, a member of the youth group at St. Michael Parish in Olympia, works in the Tri-Parish Food Bank at St. Charles Parish in Burlington as part of the summertime Youth Migrant Project. Photo: Stephen Brashear

BURLINGTON – After a week serving migrant workers and their families in the Skagit Valley this summer, 13-year-old Emma Corcoran was left inspired by their strength.

“They didn’t seem poor,” said Emma, a member of St. Michael Parish in Olympia. “I think they were very rich [in faith] … and really depended on and trusted God through all of their struggles and difficulties in life.”

Experiencing Catholic social teaching through action is one of the aims of the 10-week Youth Migrant Project, based at St. Charles Parish in Burlington.

St. Michael’s was among a dozen parishes around the archdiocese that sent middle-school and junior-high youth to the Skagit Valley for weeklong mission trips this summer (see box for list).

During a typical week of service, youth may work at a daycare center for children of migrant workers, assist at the Tri-Parish Food Bank at St. Charles and help with harvesting and weeding. They prepare meals for families, including a Tuesday fiesta for children at the migrant camps and a big dinner for more than 400 on Wednesday. There’s group prayer every evening, Mass on Thursday and a closing ceremony with time for sharing on Friday.

For many middle-school students from St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, their mission in Burlington was their first time interacting with people on the margins, said Tony Vasinda, the parish’s pastoral assistant for evangelization and mission.

The July trip was an opportunity for them to realize that “we as Catholics are called to something more than the secularized kindness we often experience,” he said.

It began with a daycare

The Youth Migrant Project traces its beginnings to 1981. A group of youth ministers partnered with Catholic Community Services of Western Washington to open a daycare center for migrant families in the basement of St. Joseph Parish in Lynden.

“They saw that children [of migrant workers] were dying in the fields because their parents would take them — they would stay in the cars by themselves and there was no daycare,” said Jose Ortiz, pastoral assistant for social outreach at St. Charles.

Each summer from 1986-92, youth from the archdiocese traveled to the area and spent a week at a time caring for migrant children. The Youth Migrant Project relocated in 1993 to the Skagit Valley, where participants began volunteering in four daycare centers operated by the Washington State Migrant Council.

The project, now directed by Ortiz, has expanded to include volunteer time at the food bank and in the fields and camps.

Youth carrying cross through migrant camp
Mitchell Abramson of St. Luke Parish leads a procession through a migrant camp on the way to Mass for migrant families and others during a week of service with the Youth Migrant Project in the Skagit Valley. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Lasting impressions

Spending a week in the Skagit Valley left a lasting impression on some of the youth, their leaders said.

The St. Luke’s group of 32 youth included high school students who met with Vasinda and other chaperones every day. “Our high school students realize that they can be leaders for the first time and that they actually have a voice,” Vasinda said. “They can become advocates and have different gifts that they bring to the process.”

One of Emma Cochran’s favorite experiences during St. Michael’s mission in August was eucharistic adoration on the last night for the parish’s group of 30.

“I think it brought me closer to God because we’d gone through so much with the migrant kids,” she said, “and we really got to pray for them individually.”

At the end of the week, said St. Michael’s youth minister Anna Swanson, two young men expressed interest in the priesthood, and other youth chatted with her about one day serving as youth ministers and missionaries.

“The youth are the future of our church and our community,” Swanson said. “This experience gives them purpose and a fire in their heart to help others.”

Youth Migrant Project participants

A dozen parishes participated in the 2017 Youth Migrant Project. Groups from these parishes each spent a week in mission in the Skagit Valley between June 18 and Aug. 25:

Holy Rosary, Edmonds
St. Leo the Great, Tacoma
St. Mary, St. Anne and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Seattle
St. Madeleine Sophie, Bellevue
Holy Family, Kirkland
St. Luke, Shoreline
St. John Mary Vianney, Kirkland
St. John Bosco, Lakewood
St. Michael, Olympia
Sacred Heart, Bellevue

Youth Migrant Project goals

1. Discovering and living Jesus’ call to a life of loving service.
2. Understanding the importance of respecting the rights and responsibilities of all people.
3. Learning that you don’t have to travel to a Third World country to work for justice and against poverty.
4. Experiencing the richness of the Hispanic culture.
5. Gaining valuable experience to prepare youth for future mission experiences.
6. Making new friends, developing and deepening an awareness of their faith, and experiencing the universality of the Catholic Church.

Source: St. Charles Parish, Burlington