July 26, 2006
Imagine this: Teenagers jumping out of bed at 6 a.m., eager to start the day with prayer so they can rush off and begin a day of hard physical labor in the hot summer sun, rebuilding homes and restoring faith in poverty stricken areas across the United States.
Sound like an implausible scenario, an impossible dream, for sleepy teens who'd rather party on the beach than put their talents to good use and serve others in need? Not for the 20 young people and four adult leaders from the Westhampton Presbyterian Church who boarded the church bus recently and headed to Lampeter, Pennsylvania for a weeklong stint at Reach Workcamps.
For the past 13 years, Reach Workcamps has embarked upon a mission of service to low-income communities. Working with local agencies and churches, each summer a number of camps situated in different economically challenged areas of the country seek students and adult sponsors attend week-long sessions and engage in physical labor and spiritual growth.
Young people sign up for Reach work on projects including basic weatherization, painting, repair and construction of porches, steps, wheelchair ramps and outhouses.
"It's such a privilege for me to be a part of this deep, enriching and building experience, because although it's about construction, it's not really about hammering and nailing," said WPC Youth Ministry Coordinator Pat Hubbard. "It's about people construction. It's about faith construction."
Westhampton Presbyterian Church has been sending youth groups and adult volunteers to participate in the Reach program for eight years; the group has visited areas such as upstate New York and Tennessee. Funds are raised for the trip through donations from WPC, local civic groups, participants and private sponsors, as well as through an annual Chinese auction, said Westhampton Presbyterian youth leader Gordon Hubbard.
This year, he said, 450 participants from churches all over the country worked on 57 homes in Lampeter; groups are divided into work crews comprised of seven volunteers. Reach is open to students entering grades nine through 12 and up to age 20; kids sleep on air mattresses in local high schools.
"The construction aim of the workcamp is to provide residents with a warmer, dryer and safer home," explains the mission statement on the Reach website. "The workcamp also helps to restore lost pride and hope in the residents." The goal is not only to rebuild broken homes but also to heal battered spirits as young workers form a lifetime bond with the residents they're helping.
Such was the case as WPC members and sisters Karen and Cynthia Diers, who, with others in their crew, worked diligently to roof a large house. The home was occupied by a woman whose husband, a retired police officer, was battling Alzheimer's and cancer. As a token of appreciation, the young people were treated to homemade apple and peach pies, as well as the recipe, after their work was done.
"The kids come back feeling as though they can help other people and get things done," said Julie Diers, the girls' mother. "It makes them see that others need help, and makes them feel they can accomplish anything."
Pat Hubbard agrees Reach can change a young person's view of the world forever. One camper, Julia Christ, 15, wrote Hubbard a "care note," one of the notes written by Reach participants. In her note, "Julia wrote, 'When people say that this trip changes your life, they aren't kidding. It definitely changed mine.' That is a very powerful statement," said Hubbard.
And it's exactly what the Reach experience is all about. "Reach is an opportunity for young people who profess to be Christians to have the opportunity to really put their faith into action, to be the hands and feet of Jesus on earth," said Hubbard. "In the process of serving, we learn how to serve."
Although the day is filled with physical work, Reach is not all about hard labor. Young people spend some time each day engaged in devotions and youth group reflections.
Reach Ministries International was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1991 and is interdenominational. Since then, over 25,000 young people and adult sponsors have attended a total of 82 Reach Workcamps in 13 different states and Mexico. Reach Workcamps boasts a 70% youth group return rate.
And among this year's WPC group, the shared sentiment is clear: They'll be back. Young people include Michael Baird, Jennifer Biancanello, Kristina Carter, Alec Christ, Julia Christ, Jessica Daniels, Tim Dayton, Cynthia Diers, Karen Diers, Billy Finn, Brian Fochtman, Cory and Kyle Hubbard, Sean Jones, Sara Lohneiss, Nicole Maccagli, Kaley O'Brien, Kelsey O'Brien, Cara Oslager and Kim Yuen, as well as adult volunteers John Fochtman, Gordon and Pat Hubbard and Erin Johnson, who returned as a youth leader after participating while in school.
"As a result of this experience, their level of awareness is raised at a much younger age," said Hubbard. "What I hope will come out of it is a community that is more warm, accepting, caring and more helpful to each other, simply because we have this little army, these warriors who are combating all that is not right or fair about the world."