Kids to repair homes while serving God

GNOMES at work: Gloria Towle-Hilt, left, measures lumber while building a home-improvement project as part of a Christian work camp. Towle-Hilt is now helping to organize a local camp, to be housed at Guilderland High School next July.  The St. Madeleine Sophie youth, who have participated in service trips across the Northeast for the last four summers, call themselves the Guilderland GNOMES, which stands for Giving Neighbors Our Meaningful, Enthusiastic Service.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Sharing a smile: Tahlia Hadley, left, and Victoria Mausler leaf through literature about Christian work camps as they organize one for Guilderland next July 6 to 12. Hadley is the youth minister for St. Madeleine Sophie Parish, and Mausler has been on four mission trips. Both women say the experience is life-changing. Currently, organizers are seeking 70 home-improvement projects within a 30-minute drive of Guilderland Center. They also need local volunteers with construction expertise to evaluate the projects, to see if they can be completed, for free, by volunteers within a week. Call the church at 355-3115 if you want a free fix-up project, or if you can appraise such projects.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“In Guilderland,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles, “people have a lot, and have a lot to give.” The high school will house a Christian work camp next summer; participants will complete local home-improvement projects.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Giving back is probably the most important thing a child can do,” says Mary Summermatter, who recently retired as the principal of Farnsworth Middle School and who serves on the planning committee for next summer’s work camp.

GUILDERLAND — Next July, 400 Christian students from across the country will stay at Guilderland High School for a week to work on home projects for the elderly, the disabled, and the needy.

The project is the brainchild of Tahlia Hadley, the youth minister for St. Madeleine Sophie Parish. She is working in partnership with the Guilderland School District and with Group Cares, the not-for-profit division of Group Publishing, founded in 1977 by Thom and Joani Schultz.

Up to 70 local projects — including porch and wheelchair-ramp construction, step repair, painting both inside and out, mobile-home skirting, weatherization, and roofing — will be carried out by teams of five teenagers with adult leaders.

Right now, organizers are looking for homes within a 30-minute drive of Guilderland Center, which includes the Helderberg Hilltowns. Residents should be on hand between July 7 and 11 when the work will be undertaken.

Organizers are also looking for volunteers with knowledge of construction who can appraise the projects to see if they can be completed by crews within five days.

Hadley anticipates about 175 project proposals will be needed to be winnowed down to those 70 that can be completed by the work camp.

“If you know somebody that needs repairs,” she urged, “go to that person and urge them to call us.” The church’s phone number is 355-3115.

Hadley said she realizes that a lot of times people, especially the elderly, are skeptical. “It sounds like a scam,” she said of getting free work done on your home. She explained how and why the free work happens.

“It changed my life”

Hadley is 29 but has the exuberance and directness of the kids she leads. She came from a church in Connecticut with an active youth group, and said her first work camp experience changed her life. “I fell in love with it,” Hadley said. “I met people from across the country and we formed a strong bond.”

She said she will never forget the elderly woman whose home she painted that first summer. “It was just her warmth and presence,” Hadley said, that made her so memorable. “She wrote us all Christmas cards.”

Hadley didn’t know how to paint when she started the project, and saved her paint-hardened brush as a memento to share with the youth of St. Madeleine Sophie when she started recruiting for work camps after she arrived five years ago. She had the backing of the parish priest, James Belogi.

“Our parish is so supportive and generous,” said Hadley. “They jumped on board,” she said of the parish, which has about 200 families.

A golf tournament this year raised $20,000 that will be used for building supplies next summer.

“All that money will stay in the community,” said Gloria Towle-Hilt, explaining supplies for the projects will be bought locally. Towle-Hilt, a retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, is a member of the Guilderland School Board and a parishioner at St. Madeleine Sophie, active in volunteer work.

Victoria Mausler testified to the worth of the program from the perspective of a volunteer. She graduated in June from Guilderland High School, completing her fourth work-camp experience this summer before starting her studies in psychology at Hudson Valley Community College.

“It changed my life,” she said of the first camp she went to when she was 15. “It opened my eyes to God. It made me realize how good it is to help others. It made me want to do community service…You see people’s lives transformed.”

The seed for the work camps was planted in 1977 when hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed by the Big Thompson River flood in Colorado, which killed over 140 people.  Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, organized church youth groups from across the United States to come and help, according to Group Cares; 300 kids helped with 50 repair projects in Loveland, Colo. The program went national in 1978, and this past summer 42 work camps were held in different states. In addition to home-repair camps, Group Cares has international mission trips and community-service mission trips as well.

Group Cares also has programs to give mosquito nets to children in Mali to prevent malaria; to have Christian children send Bibles, school supplies, and other gifts to children in need worldwide; and for charitable donations.

“Your teenagers will spend time with Jesus like never before,” states a booklet from Group Missions Trips, promoting the work camps. “And they won’t dread that time, because it’s woven into the entire day through four spiritual touch-points that occur naturally, as if Jesus were simply a natural part of the day (which he is)!”

Each year, the work camps have a different theme. The theme for next summer is “repair”:  “Through fast-paced evening programs and depth-inspiring devotions, your group will encounter Jesus,” the booklet says. “The real Jesus. The blood-and-bone carpenter King who understood how to repair a fractured table leg — and a shattered life. And who was willing to do both.”

“You’d think sleeping on the floor would suck,” said Mausler, “but it’s my favorite week of the year…We count down to this week every year…We all stay really tight together.”

Campers at Guilderland High School will sleep on classroom floors (Hadley highly recommends using air mattresses), eat in the cafeteria, and have group sessions in the gym.

Mausler described a typical day during the work week, waking up early, at 6:45 a.m. to eat breakfast in time for a morning program at 8.

“You sing songs and there’s a message to ponder,” she said.

The work groups leave for their project sites at 8:30 and stay there for six hours, breaking for lunch, when there are devotions.

“The groups are mixed up with kids from all different churches,” said Mausler.

The workers return to the school by 3:30 p.m. and have free time until dinner at 5. That’s followed by an evening worship program for an hour or so. “You sing songs and have a self-reflection time,” said Mausler. “You learn about God.”

Towle-Hilt showed a video on her phone of work-camp participants who were jumping in lively fashion to riveting music as part of their program.

“It’s not ‘Kum ba yah,’” said Hadley of the traditional, quiet Christian camp song.

She also said, “We’ve been to other schools and seen the murals, and the books in the room. This year, it’s our school where people will be sleeping and eating and laughing and praying.”

Asked if kids who aren’t Christian could participate, Hadley explained that the St. Madeleine Sophie contingent this year will serve as hosts for the visiting campers and anyone can participate in planning the event, evaluating the work sites, and providing hospitality. The local contingent will also pitch in when a group is overwhelmed and needs help, or will finish unfinished projects.

Hadley likened it to preparing for a birthday party where the hosts to the laborious work of baking the cake, planning the games, and decorating. Then, the kids come and enjoy the party after which the hosts clean up.

“Paying forward”

Hadley said, unlike some areas where work camps have been held, Guilderland is not a visibly impoverished area.

“It’s not obvious but there are definitely pockets,” she said of poverty. “It seems more hidden. There’s a pride that you have to be middle-class suburban.” Yet, she said, people have called the rectory, looking for help.

Asked how the school district got involved in the project, Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “All roads lead to Gloria Towle-Hilt.”

“At the middle school, there’s a huge community-service component,” said Mary Summermatter, who recently retired as the principal of Farnsworth Middle School and who serves on the planning committee for the work camp project.

“Giving back is probably the most important thing a child can do,” she said. “They need to pay forward, to learn the valuable lesson in lending a helping hand.”

She went on, “The more you foster compassion, the more you see it grow.”

“Our ultimate mission,” said Wiles, “is preparing young people to be part of the community…how to contribute to a greater world.”

The original idea, Wiles said, was to house the camp at the middle school but Farnsworth has only eight showers. So, logistics were worked out to house the work camp at the high school, which has plenty of showers, planning around the summer school and cleaning schedules, Wiles said.

“I’m very proud of our staff; they always find a way,” she said.

Wiles also said, “In Guilderland, people have a lot, and have a lot to give.”

The work camp can take a maximum of 440 people, both youth and adults, and half that many have already signed up. Each person pays $459. “A lot of it is for insurance,” said Hadley. “Residents don’t have to carry the burden of insurance.”

The rest goes for such things as lodging, food, utilities, and program fees.

“These are kids that are paying to volunteer,” said Hadley.

“Projects sound so hard,” said Mausler. But the groups follow manuals that give step-by step directions, said Towle-Hilt, so even amateurs can succeed at the tasks.

“I’d never painted a house before,” said Mausler, “but now I know how to scrape and paint.”

Mausler described an experience she had while working in Hamburg, N.Y. A woman there had neighbors who were complaining because her house looked run down, but she couldn’t afford to fix it. Mausler told of how the woman hugged each of those who painted her house. “She now has her hope in teenagers restored,” she said.

Towle-Hilt said the work camps break down stereotypes (see related editorial) as elderly residents come to appreciate teenagers, and teenagers enjoy helping old people and poor people. “By the end, they’re best friends,” she said.

“The week empowers kids to know they can make a difference,” concluded Hadley. “A lot of them turn off their phones, and don’t look at Twitter. They come away saying, ‘I made a difference. I touched a life.’ It’s something real.”

More Guilderland News