December 15, 2023

Charlestown youths learn about joy volunteering at SPREAD Advent retreat

Participants and volunteers wave at the camera during the Special Religious Education and Discipleship Advent retreat at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.

Participants and volunteers wave at the camera during the Special Religious Education and Discipleship Advent retreat at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.

By Natalie Hoefer

As Jessica Sarver drove from Charlestown to Indianapolis on Dec. 2, she was excited to see friends she made during a two-day retreat this summer.

And she was excited for six girls of the youth group she leads at St. Michael Parish in Charlestown to meet them.

“I can tell they’re enjoying themselves already,” Sarver said of the youths shortly after the gathering began.

The friends Sarver referred to were participants she met while volunteering at a Special Religious Education and Discipleship (SPREAD) summer retreat south of Indianapolis in July.

On Dec. 2, many of the same participants were gathered again for an afternoon SPREAD Advent retreat at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

“Since this isn’t an overnight event, I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring the youths to introduce them to these beautiful people and [to experience] volunteering with those with special needs,” explained Sarver, St. Michael’s pastoral associate.

“I hope [the girls] walk away with a better understanding of the needs of different groups of people, and how they can serve them, and how much joy they can bring to an individual just by showing up and being present with them.”

According to three of the young volunteers, the girls learned not just about what they can give, but about what those with special needs have to offer as well.

‘Openness, love and pure joy’

Both the summer and Advent SPREAD retreats are offered annually by the Disabilities Ministry of the archdiocesan Office of Catechesis.

This year’s Advent retreat focused on the four candles of the Advent wreath symbolizing hope, peace, joy and love. The 18 participants—most from the Indianapolis area and one from the New Albany Deanery—also made Christmas cards for those incarcerated at the Indiana Women’s Prison, prayed the joyful mysteries of the rosary, decorated cookies and worshipped together at Mass.

“I wanted them to walk away with a feeling of hope, peace, joy and love, and really excited about Advent and building that excitement for Christmas,” said archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry coordinator Jennifer Bryans.

She was excited to have the St. Michael youths participate.

“I hope they walk away with the very same things as the participants,” said Bryans. “But also a renewed appreciation of service and helping others, and to witness that openness, love and pure joy that [the participants] naturally embrace.”

When Sarver saw a flyer about the SPREAD Advent retreat, she reached out to Bryans about the possibility of bringing members of the St. Michael youth group to help.

Through various volunteer opportunities in the New Albany Deanery the group has participated in, “They’ve learned a lot about serving people, and they’ve learned a lot about the needs of other people that they don’t experience in their daily lives,” she said.

“But outside of school, I don’t think working with individuals with disabilities is something that most of them really have an opportunity to do.”

Bryans was thrilled to have the young people volunteer. She traveled to Charlestown to visit with the youth group in advance of the retreat to talk about what would happen and what to expect.

On the day of the retreat, a few girls were assigned to each of the four participant groups.

“That way they could get to know the participants on a more one-on-one basis versus just walking around,” Bryans explained. “The girls were really involved, which was wonderful.”

‘Human just like us’

And they had a great time, too.

“This is so fun! I love being here already,” said a smiling Maelyn Sarver about 30 minutes into the afternoon retreat.

Having a friend with special needs, she said she was “immediately interested when I heard about the idea of coming.”

The seventh-grader especially enjoyed the group of participants she was assigned to.

“They’re just so talkative, and they love learning,” she said. “They like to answer every question, and they get it right almost every time. You can just really tell that they’re paying attention and that they want to be here and they’re excited to be here.”

Lillie Boggess had a similar experience.

“Everyone is just happy to be here,” said the eighth-grader. “It was fun talking with them and hearing them talk at the snack table about sports and stuff they have in common.”

The experience fulfilled a desire of hers in choosing to help at the event two hours from her hometown.

“One reason why I came was to see if I would like” volunteering with the special needs community, Lillie said.

Her verdict?

“I would definitely like to do more things like this,” she said enthusiastically.

From the many volunteer opportunities the St. Michael youth group has participated in, seventh-grader Adalynn Lathem said “it’s just been nice to get out there and learn about more people and how we can help them.”

Serving at the SPREAD Advent retreat “made me feel really good,” she added. “It taught me to be patient and to really see the people who are here. It’s just amazing to see how they can see the world in different perspectives. Honestly, they’re just joyful.”

To help the six girls process their experience, Sarver plans to have them share with the rest of the youth group about the event and what they learned.

“You always learn and understand and process things better when you then have to teach it or explain it to someone else,” she said.

Sarver hopes to see the rest of the group get involved in future opportunities to serve those with special needs.

“We talk to [the youths] a lot about the dignity of the human person,” she said. Volunteering at events like the SPREAD Advent retreat “really reinforces that message.”

It was a message Lillie embraced.

Those with special needs “can be different, but they are human just like us,” she said. “They still can do amazing things.”

(For more information about the archdiocese’s Disabilities Ministry, contact Jennifer Bryans at or call her at 317-236-1448.)

Local site Links: