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 | By Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

“Team Thelen” Makes Y.E.S. a Family Affair

Glen Thelen remembers when his daughter Emily first came home after participating in Youth Encounter Service (Y.E.S.) in 2015.

“She really embraced Y.E.S.! She came home and was really chatting up Y.E.S.,” he recalled. “[Her siblings] saw Emily’s excitement about Y.E.S.”

This year, four of the six members of the Thelen family participated in Y.E.S. (one sibling is not yet old enough to join.) The Thelens are members of Nativity of the Lord Parish and St. Louis residents.

Y.E.S. is a weeklong immersion service experience during which high school-aged youth and adult volunteers learn about and combat poverty by volunteering at outreach organizations and by working on the exterior of the home of a low-income individual. In the evenings, they pray together and learn about Catholic social teaching. Throughout the day, they are challenged to consider how poverty affects those in their own communities.

Nikki Bakos, Y.E.S. director, said the group of youth are excited to learn how to do the tasks at hand and learn about Catholic social teaching, a beautiful but lesser-known aspect of the Faith.

“My staff live our Catholic social teaching. This is the ultimate experience of it and sharing of it,” she said.

The family’s involvement began when Glen volunteered as a team leader in 2014, and encouraged his daughter to participate. She did, and loved it so much she was invited back to be a youth leader the following two years, until she aged out of the program.

“I really loved it, especially going to all the agencies,” she said. “I really like meeting our homeowners. They have such pride as homeowners!”

She recalled one year when a homeowner, whose house had been fixed up the previous year, came to mow the yard of the house the Y.E.S. volunteers were working at, paying forward the kindness he had received.

Now Emily is old enough to serve as an adult team leader, and she’s excited to be back with two of her younger siblings.

Danielle, an incoming senior at St. Louis High School, is a youth leader like Emily was. This is her second year participating, and Y.E.S. has had an impact on her that reaches far beyond the week’s project.

“Y.E.S. really proved I wanted to do something to help people,” she said. Danielle is pursuing a career in nursing and is already taking classes to reach that goal. “Y.E.S. has really helped shape relationships with people and my view of poverty.”

Changing how participants view poverty is a key goal of Y.E.S. Youth volunteer at community outreach organizations, including Mustard Seed Shelter, Eastside Soup Kitchen and the Partnership Center, where they clean, do yard work and distribute food. This year, Saginaw District Court Judge Elian Fichtner invited the youth into her courtroom to observe and explain how the criminal justice system tries to keep the community safe while ensuring those accused of a crime receive due process, a fair trial and the resources they may need.

Education about poverty and Catholic social teaching is also integral to the week. On Tuesday, youth packed their usual lunch, but were later told they would be participating in a “hunger awareness meal,” nicknamed H.A.M. Each team is allotted $1.52 per person (the average SNAP allotment) to purchase a balanced meal. As families may not always have the inexpensive means to get to the best places to shop for groceries, teams were to purchase their meals at a local convenience store. They also had very limited cooking supplies with which to prepare their meal.

Their younger brother Zach, an incoming freshman, is participating for the first time simply because his family recommended it.

“I’ve enjoyed painting [the house] and seeing the fruit of my labor,” he said. “I’m glad it looks good and we put in the work to make it look good.”

The home that the youth work on benefits from more than just new paint. By scraping away the old paint and applying a new, quality paint to the wooden exterior, they protect the siding from rot. They also caulk and glaze windows and replace insulation plugs to reduce drafts and make the home more energy-efficient. Safety is also an important consideration, said Nikki Bakos, Y.E.S. director. The Y.E.S. team ensures all porch lights and locks work, as well as replace house numbers with reflective ones.

The homeowner has stated that he wants to “age in place,” that is, remain in his home as long as he is able. Therefore, volunteers also built safe porch steps, sealed the lumber and added treads and handrails. The homeowner, in his 80s, can no longer clean out his gutters, so they also put gutter guards on his house.

“If we’re going to do a job, we’re going to do it right. We don’t cut corners,” Nikki said. “Anything we do is not a Band-Aid.”

The Y.E.S. staff, which includes experienced adults and a former home inspector, examines the house closely for any potential issues as well, such as insect holes in the siding, to be repaired.

“It’s looking at the little things that can become big things,” Nikki said.

Zach added that he’s learned about poverty and the everyday stresses for those experiencing it.

“You can’t even focus on working outside, you have to focus on getting enough food and if you can afford heating,” he remarked.

Y.E.S. helps to alleviate that burden on house upkeep.

Zach also said he’s happy he’s participating with his older sisters and dad, though they are on different teams. He added that all the participants and leaders have been “really nice and made it fun.”

“‘Team Thelen,’ part of our job is we go back to our parish and get them fired up,” Glen said. “It’s easy to promote [Y.E.S.] when you’re doing it, because you’re walking the walk.”