Father-son volunteer duo

Our summer community-service trips have brought us closer.

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    Teamwork: Robert Nieland (in gray) stands with his son, John (in blue), and other volunteers for the Group Workcamps Foundation.
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    Participants work together on a project.
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It's not exactly the whole family and it's not exactly vacation. There are no palm trees, theme parks, or plane tickets involved. For my family, summer vacation has evolved into a week of father-son community service organized through the Group Workcamps Foundation. The group coordinates home-repair projects for people in need in more than 150 communities each year.

Enlisting in this endeavor isn't for the faint of heart. Our church youth group has traveled more than 1,000 miles on past trips just to get to our community service site, arriving tired and grimy for registration and a group photo. Our "hotel" for the week typically is a high school, with air mattresses jammed into crowded classrooms.

The cafeteria food and group showers bring back uncomfortable memories of my formative years. Sandwiched between annoying music that wakes us up at 6:45 a.m. and lights out at 11:00 p.m. is a day of hot, sweaty, dirty work, late afternoon sports tournaments, dinner, an evening program, and group devotions.

Recommended: Uh oh, Sunday is Father's Day! What to do? Take our quiz.

I signed up as an adult leader four years ago when my son, John, reluctantly agreed to attend his first work camp. While it might not be everyone's cup of tea, a week spent working on home repair projects with a group of teenagers has proved to be a welcome respite from the corporate world I normally inhabit.

With a strong bond of shared experiences and values that my son and I have developed over the past four summers, I had high hopes for this year's trek to St. Louis, Mich. With John getting ready to leave for college, I had mixed emotions as the clock ticked down to our departure date. This was to be our last work camp together, and I wanted it to be a memorable one.

St. Louis didn't disappoint. Although we weren't in the same crew, we both were assigned to construction projects. John spent hours demolishing a set of concrete steps and helped build a deck over the rubble. I worked with a couple of kids from Kansas and Minnesota to dig post holes, tear out part of an old deck, and build deck and wheelchair ramp extensions. We also won the 3-on-3 basketball tournament, and our special-needs teammate was named most valuable player of the tournament.

I listened more carefully this year to what others said about my son. His adult crew leader praised his character and work ethic. He told me that John had spent a lot of time talking to the residents and was an inspiration in their quest to improve their lives. I wondered whether I would have been as comfortable as he was in the role of empathetic listener.

Helping a child navigate the journey from dependent preteen to independent adult is never easy for a parent. Despite my typical male inclinations, I've had to stop and ask for directions at times. Our annual service week tradition has helped us both find our way through our changing roles of father and son. I've been awed by the way his skills, confidence, and compassion have grown on each of these trips. And I've been privileged to see those characteristics in action.

I had planned to take a break from mission trips until my 11-year-old daughter was old enough to go. But John surprised me when we returned from Michigan, saying he wanted to do this again next summer. In spite of all the other wonderful vacation options out there, I can't pass up the opportunity to see how his first year of college shapes him.

Deal me in.

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