Paint, nails, and a will to work. Teen `campers' give hands-on aid to needy

ZZZZT, zzzzt! David Smith is sawing by hand through a two-by-four, his teeth clenched, triceps bulging and sweat dripping from his chin. Beneath the hot and humid South Carolina sky, he is as wet as if he just climbed out of a swimming pool. The 17-year-old is not being paid to rebuild this porch by the edge of a swamp in the summertime. In fact, he paid for the opportunity to do it.

He and a church youth group from Cleveland drove 2 days to join a volunteer work camp here that is repairing homes for the needy.

Nine of the week-long work camps are being organized around the country this summer by Group magazine, an interdenominational youth publication in Loveland, Colo. David is one of more than 2,000 teen-agers participating.

On an extension ladder beside him, Erin Anderson, a paint-spattered 15-year-old from Silver Spring, Md., is scraping the trim along a roof. Thirteen-year-old Shannon Gleason, from Redford, Mich., is brushing canary yellow paint on a windowsill and slapping at mosquitoes on her legs.

In one week the six teens and one adult volunteer working on this four-room frame house have rebuilt the front porch, replaced rotten sliding and broken windowpanes, scraped boards, and repainted the entire exterior.

Evenese Simmons, the owner, has spent the week pulling up rotten linoleum in the kitchen and sweeping up debris around the workers.

``It's too good a house to let it go down,'' said the 58-year-old grandmother, noting, ``The top don't even leak. If they hadn't come through to do it, I would have had to, but don't you know I hadn't got that money?''

Mrs. Simmons's house was one of 64 chosen for work camp repairs by the Charleston County Human Services Commission, which compiles a list of homeowners eligible because of age, disability, or income level for assistance in weatherizing their homes.

``There are 10 or 12 houses on the list,'' said weatherization coordinator Price Whitaker, adding wryly, ``ten or twelve thousand.'' Weatherization crews upgrade about 240 houses a year, but ``the list keeps growing.''

The work camps are held in communities where 60 to 80 houses are eligible for repair, enough to keep several hundred volunteers busy.

Some of the camps - held for the last 10 summers - have been in inner cities, but ``parents don't like to send their kids to places like that,'' notes John Shaw, director of events at Group magazine. This year most of the sites are in rural communities in the South and Midwest.

Charleston County, which includes the city of Charleston, contains extremes of wealth and poverty; at both extremes, many houses are old.

Sadie Myers, who works part time as a domestic servant, owns an 80-year-old, two-story, tin-roofed house that belonged to her grandparents. ``It was on the list for the weatherization people to do, but when?'' said Mrs. Myers, who was declared eligible five years ago.

The work crews ``put new boards on it, two porches, and they painted it,'' she said, beaming. ``I'm really satisfied, yes. They did a beautiful job.''

The teen-age carpenters are glad to hear compliments like that, because some of them were worried. ``I could barely even hammer a nail when I came here,'' admitted Shannon Gleason. Even some of the adult leaders said the same.

Teens and adults with special skills were assigned to job sites with matching requirements. Each crew included a person with at least some construction experience.

Still, there were difficulties. Nathan Stovall was part of a crew that had just stripped half of a rotten roof off a house when a sudden thunderstorm blew up. ``It rained right in the house,'' soaking the floor and personal belongings, recalled the 15-year-old, wincing.

But if some of the work was less than perfect, ``it's more than was here,'' observed Mr. Whitaker. ``At least it'll serve the wood with some paint on it. It'll help preserve the houses.''

And skills improved rapidly with practice. ``I'm painting, hammering, things I never thought I could learn how to do,'' said Shannon. ``It's kind of a letdown to think it's going to end,'' she added.

The work camp could hardly be confused with a vacation. Teens pay an average of $250 apiece plus transportation. Much of the money goes to buy paint, lumber, and other construction materials. The volunteers sleep in sleeping bags on classroom floors at McClellanville's Lincoln High School and rise at 6 a.m. to go to work.

Showers - 24 are shared by 403 people - are cold, although whether that can be considered a hardship is debatable, the kids said, given the humidity and heat that soars in the 90s every day and remains in the upper 70s even at night.

Liberal application of insect repellant is as routine a part of the day as brushing teeth, but most of the kids still have bites from mosquitoes that swarm out of the swampy forests.

The volunteers, though, have few complaints, in part because the living conditions they see around them are not even as comfortable as this.

Some of the teens had been unaware that people in the United States were living beneath leaky roofs without indoor plumbing. Many said they were shocked and saddened by what they saw.

``It makes you grateful for what you have,'' said Kelly Dietz, an 18-year-old from Minneapolis. ``Sometimes you think, `I wish I had a phone in my room,' and these people don't even have a phone in the house.''

Residents had to adjust to the work crews, too. Many were quiet and withdrawn at first, and some remained that way throughout the week.

``It's a pride thing,'' said Whitaker. ``It's like taking a handout. We find that all the time. But they've got to let down their pride, because they need the work done.''

Other residents simply appreciated the help. ``I just give thanks to the Lord,'' said 82-year-old Susan Myers, referring to the fresh paint and shiny new underpinning on the two-story wooden house she has lived in for more years than she can remember.

Group magazine coordinators give the church crews a list of suggested projects they could pursue at home, encouraging the volunteers to take their construction skills back and put them to use in their own towns.

The Rev. Kirt Dana, a 32-year-old minister from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said he has seen a lasting effect of the work camps in the eight years he has attended.

The young people ``see what a little teamwork can do,'' he said. ``Our culture stresses being an individual, but we've done a lot of work here as six people. Now they can go back and think, `Hey, we can do this.'''

``After you get the job done, you look at the house and you have to feel good,'' said Nathan Stovall.

Most of the teens at McClellanville agree with him and with Erin Anderson, who noted, ``We should be helping people. With a whole bunch of young people, it's a lot of fun.''

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