Discovering the 'gem of the North'

By  Nisheeta Menon, Youth Speak News
  • June 27, 2008

{mosimage}MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - When chaplain Jim McLeavy set out to plan St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School’s first mission trip, he chose an unconventional location.

Eleven students and four staff members at the Mississauga school set out in May with McLeavy for a nine-day project in the Yukon Territory at Braeburn Lake Christian Camp, 87 km north of Whitehorse.

Having worked in the Yukon before, McLeavy said he always dreamed of bringing a student group there to discover what he calls “a true Canadian mission experience.”

“The Yukon is like a hidden gem of the North. The church up there is vibrant, creative and hard working, but there is a vast amount of work to be done, and a lack of human resources to meet their needs,” he said. “They are deeply passionate about our country and very open to receiving help in the form of missionaries.”

The ecumenical camp is a popular summer destination for many youth, but needed volunteers to spruce up its appearance. The students worked for 10-12 hours per day, assisting with projects such as re-staining the camp’s log cabins and clearing brush.

“When the group arrived at the camp, they soon learned that mission was not about being comfortable,” he said. “It was very cold, and there were no showers or bathrooms.”

Ultimately, the hope was that the students would be able to reflect on what “quality of life” meant to them, McLeavy said.

“Some students broke into tears at seeing the accommodations,” he added. “Eventually, however, we were able to foster a real sense of community as we cooked, cleaned and laughed together. They owned it by the second day.”

McLeavy said that beyond material possessions and comforts, a mission experience allows students to “get uncomfortable” and ask themselves what kind of life they want to lead and how they might be able to make an impact on the world. 

“The students realized that the people in the Yukon had true happiness in their simplicity,” he said.

McLeavy said the students were struck by the “beauty of creation” through the wilderness which surrounded them. On the last day of their trip, the group took a five-kilometre hike up a nearby mountain and spent half an hour in silent contemplation. 

“That alone for a suburban kid was profound,” he said. “We couldn’t help but think of the biblical passage which says ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ ”

Grade 10 student Mary-Katherine Boss said it was the kind of experience that “nobody can understand unless they've done it.”

“It really makes you appreciate your life more, and it’s helped my stress level a lot — you realize that at times we worry about the stupidest little things,” she said. “Up there you worry about when you’ll get to take a shower. Yet you realize you’re in the same boat with everyone else, and there’s no point in worrying about it.”

Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse was one of the driving forces behind the trip, having travelled to Toronto and spoken with St. Joan of Arc students at the end of April before they set out on their mission experience.

Jonathan Boss, a Grade 11 student who made the trip, said Gordon was reassuring and encouraging.

“He was really nice, with a great sense of humour — a very real person,” Boss said. “He made the Yukon area sound really good, describing how beautiful it was.

“But he didn’t give us false hope that the trip would be a vacation either. He assured us that we’d really be making a difference,”

St. Joan of Arc is only four years old, with 1,000 students. McLeavy said he hopes to conduct a similar trip every two years.

(Menon, 21, is studying for a Master of Divinity at the University of St. Michael’s College.)

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