264 teenagers with shovels and power tools descended on Sterling’s Gwen Thompson Briar Patch Park on Tuesday to do some good.
The teens are participating in Teen Serve Camp, which founder Sal D’Agostino says in its sixth year aims to “make life happen.”
“I think it was 2011 when we started with 17 teenagers in our living room in Leesburg, and it’s just been word of mouth ever since,” D’Agostino said.
Since that time, Teen Serve Camp has grown to nearly 1,000 middle and high schoolers across five weeks of camps, and has added a junior camp for elementary-school-aged kids. The kids sign up to spend a week going out into the community, working for charities ranging from visiting hospice care, to sorting books for needing families, to digging out and clearing sidewalks in the summer sun—and then sign up to come back the next year.
“We say it’s the most life-giving camp in Loudoun,” D’Agostino said. “That’s what we say, and I’m telling you, man, we never get complaints.”
Instead, he said, the campers love the experience, and parents say the selflessness and work ethic taught at the camp stick with the kids.
Rising sixth-grader Emerson Ray said she’s been to other camps, but likes Teen Serve Camp the best.
“I think this one is better because you take a week off yourself,” Ray said.
“Serve Camp’s really good because it helps the environment, and it can show other people how to help other people if they don’t get that much love in the world,” said fellow rising sixth-grader and repeat camper Katie Meek.
Rising Virginia Tech sophomore Erin Monahan was a camper three years ago, and is now in her second year as a camp counselor.
“I just always like serving, I guess,” Monahan said. “I like helping other people, and being able to see the difference that I make.”
Sterling Foundation chairman Aaron Gilman invited the campers to come help edge and clear the sidewalk at Gwen Thompson Briar Patch Park and led the work. He said he hopes the Sterling Foundation will become a conduit for connecting charities.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how volunteer groups find opportunities to volunteer,” Gilman said. “There’s a disconnect. There’s people here that want to help, they just don’t know where to go sometimes.”
He said he will work with Teen Serve Camp again. After all, he’s already had to buy 120 shovels for the day of work.
“This is our first effort,” Gilman said. “When we finish here, we’ll come to your community, and whoever’s community needs help. 120 shovels, we can do something pretty darn positive pretty darn quick.”
D’Agostino, the pastor of Common Ground Church in Leesburg, said the camp was born as a ministry. He and his wife Jamie were “bothered by the fact that young people didn’t have the proper understanding of who God is, and what his plan is for the world.”
“Let’s get their hands dirty, let’s show them who He is by serving, and loving, and helping other people,” D’Agostino said. “He’s asking us to make life happen, to take something that’s bad and to make it good and make it better, to put others before yourself.”
Nonetheless, he said, the vast majority of his campers are not churchgoers. But despite the hard work, they do come back year after year.
“When you love other people, it’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling,” he said.