No pay, cramped quarters, teens find God in serving

Gladys Emery hadn't stepped outdoors in more than a year.

It wasn't that she didn't want to, but the rampway leading from her modest trailer home had holes too large for her walker to negotiate.

That was until a group of teenage volunteers from across the country converged on Littleton, N.H., for a week last month to build her a new one.

"It's a gift from God. I can't believe it, I'm so grateful they came," says the pint-size octogenarian, basking in the sun on her sturdy new ramp.

More than 400 teenagers and their chaperones, from church youth groups as far away as Michigan, road-tripped to Littleton to fix up 70 homes for low-income, disabled, and elderly people.

They are a part of Group Workcamps Foundation, a nationwide organization that welcomes the volunteerism of all civic-minded organizations, though most are Christian.

The faith-based group - an entity which President Bush's proposed faith-based initiative aims to assist by offering government funding - is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Although long-term stalwarts of this organization tend to differ on whether government funds - and their possible strings - are such a good idea, they are unanimous on one thing: their solid record of accomplishment.

"Too many critics say [the government] lacks specific information on what faith-based groups achieve.... But we definitely do provide that," says vice president Joel Fay.

Indeed, the Group Workcamps record is impressive. All told, the 12,000 hours of volunteer labor in Littleton was worth at least $80,000, Mr. Fay calculates. Multiply that amount by the 48 workcamps all over the country this summer, and you're looking at upward of $3.8 million in free labor.

Of course, the Littleton camp director Tom Shepard concedes, "If someone hired skilled contractors, they would get the repairs done a lot faster."

But he's quick to add: "Our accomplishments go beyond just fixing up houses for the needy. There's also a lot of personal growth and learning about God that goes on."

That's a point the middle-school principal from Shepherd, Mich., backs up from his own experience.

On a stifling summer day in 1994, the first year Mr. Shepard volunteered at Group Workcamps, he remembers meeting a teenager, one of five Shepard was to chaperone for the week.

"He was dressed in a black trench coat, top hat - obviously trying to make a statement. And I just thought, 'Uh-oh, why's this kid in my group?' " he says.

The teenager apparently felt the same way, writing obscene comments to Shepard in the daily notes the group members were required to write.

But as the week passed, Shepard credits the act of fixing up a house for someone less fortunate, and the deep-felt discussions about God, with changing the young man.

"His last message he wrote to me mentioned that his father died when he was younger, and that he wished that he could have had a father like me," says Shepard.

Shepard hasn't missed a summer with Group Workcamps since then, spending three weeks of his four-week summer vacation with the organization.

"I have to go, it's what rejuvenates me for the new school year," he says.

Charmaine Grippo, a hairdresser and mother of two from Madison, Wis., was equally dubious before her workcamp experience began.

"Who wants to raise $345 to volunteer, travel on a long van ride with rowdy teenagers, and live in a school with crowded showers for a week?" she remembers asking herself.

But after seeing the unexpected dedication of the young adults, who put in extra-long hours to finish the ramp on Ms. Emery's house, she says she is "renewed with faith" that her own kids will turn out well.

"It's a great witness to see these young people sacrificing," she says.

Sacrifice is a concept that high-schooler Tim Hale thought a lot about during the trip. The son of a Methodist pastor from Selbyville, Del., he thought he had that definition bagged, until he met a youth from a different Christian denomination.

"My new theory goes: I think Jesus committed the ultimate sacrifice, because his death caused people to know him and follow his teachings - which caused them to stop sacrificing animals," he concludes.

Similarly, others say a highlight of the trip is meeting so many people with whom they can freely discuss Christianity.

"It just gives me a lot more confidence about my religious beliefs, especially when no one at my high school is very religious," says Cindy Carpenter of Elyria, Ohio.

But others will say that what clenched the experience was seeing first-hand the hard reality of places that needed help, and having the chance to contribute.

High-schooler Megan Gemignani recalls her experience last year when her church youth group from Hudson, N.Y., went to a workcamp at Tickbite Road in Kinston, N.C. A flood the summer before had devastated a neighborhood, killed people, and destroyed homes.

As they absorbed the enormity of the disaster, "everyone was in tears," she recalls. Megan and a friend placed throughout the destroyed homes small beaded crosses they had made.

"You cried even though you didn't even know [the flood victims]," she says.

Ms. Grippo, the hairdresser, concludes that it is "experiences like those that really further you on a spiritual journey."

To many, there is just something about toiling in relative anonymity for the satisfaction of doing a good deed.

Or, as Grippo says, recalling a Chinese proverb:

"I hear and I forget/ I see and I remember/ I do and I understand."

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