With Youth Encounter Service, volunteers combat poverty 

Click here to view photos from Youth Encounter Service (Y.E.S) 2022.

Bustling around a two-story Saginaw home, volunteers are busy working to not only beautify the home, but also making practical repairs and improvements. One group of youth are preparing to go volunteer at a soup kitchen. 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.

This is Youth Encounter Service, or Y.E.S., a weeklong immersion service experience sponsored by the Diocese of Saginaw. During Y.E.S., 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. 

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 bandaid.”

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. 

Youth also 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. 

Nikki 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.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Nikki is glad that Y.E.S. is back and impacting homeowners, agencies and youth participants.

“The summer doesn’t feel complete if this doesn’t happen,” she said.