WORTHINGTON — From the whir of an electric saw and the sound of hammers hitting nail heads to the whoosh of paint brushes and the chatter of teens, members of the Group Workcamp are busy serving others this week in Worthington and surrounding communities.
Numbering approximately 360 teens and adults across eight states, the volunteers have 65 projects on their list to complete this week.
Among them is to rebuild a wheelchair ramp at the home of Margaret and Marie Berning in Worthington. Marie, who has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair since the age of 7, relies on the ramp to get into and out of her home. The wooden structure had begun to sag in areas and was in need of an overhaul, but it wasn’t something she, or her 93-year-old mom, could replace on their own.
“Truthfully, it means more than I can put into words,” Marie said of the work taking place outside her home Monday. “There’s no way we could do it.”
The Bernings may well have been the first on the list to be considered by the Group Workcamp. Friends of the family who attend Worthington’s American Lutheran Church — the congregation who coordinated the camp’s week-long stay — recommended their home for repairs. In addition to rebuilding the deck, the five-member work group will also do some window caulking for the Bernings.
“They’re a hard-working crew,” Marie said. “They’ve been hard at it since they got here.”
Many of the youths volunteering with Group Workcamp are not new to the experience, some having taken part in the experience for their fifth consecutive year.
“It’s a good way to meet people while helping spread God’s word and helping others,” said Tessa Higgins of Lexington, Ill., one of the five-year veterans. “I just think it’s a good experience for you to grow personally and also meet a bunch of people you won’t meet anywhere else.”
Luke Lochner joined nearly 100 youth and adult volunteers from his church, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran in Pewaukee, Wis. For the trip to Worthington, Group Workcamp is Lochner's opportunity to reconnect with Jesus during the summer, and this is his fifth summer taking part in the camp.
While in years past Lochner has spent his camp time painting, he was tasked with helping to rebuild the wheelchair ramp at the Berning home this week. He’s learning new skills, forging new friendships and having lots of new experiences.
“That’s kind of the exciting part — you never know where you’re going to be,” he said.
Lochner said what brings him to the camp year after year is the reaction he sees from residents after working on their home for a week.
“The reaction from our residents by the end of the week is always something that I remember — how thankful and gracious the residents are that we’re here to help,” he said.
Celia Baer of St. Louis, Mo. followed in the footsteps of her two older sisters when she decided to sign up for her first Group Workcamp a few years ago. Her trip to Worthington is her third experience with the program.
“(My sisters) said it was such an amazing experience — especially to work with other people and get out of your comfort zone,” Baer said. “Every place that I visit is much different from where I live.”
Baer’s church, The Church of St. Michael & St. George, sent 19 youths and adults from their Episcopalean congregation to Worthington this week.
All of the camp participants are being housed at Worthington High School, where they camp out on air mattresses in the classrooms. There’s one hall for males and another for females. Meals are provided there (with sack lunches at noon), and each night includes devotions in the high school gymnasium. The public is invited to attend these gatherings, which begin at 7:30 p.m., to join in the experience.
Just down the street from the high school, a work camp group of six are working at the Rene and Velen Martinez home. On Monday, they pulled apart the wooden steps leading to the side door and constructed a new wooden frame for the replacement steps. Expected to spend the entire week on site, the group is also going to repaint the home’s exterior, as well as paint some of the interior rooms.
Rene Martinez had inquired about being included on the list when he heard the camp was coming to town. He and his wife both have full time jobs on alternating shifts, and with four kids at home — including a toddler — he said home repair and maintenance is difficult to fit in.
“It means the world to me that they’re doing this,” Rene said of Group Workcamp’s efforts. “It’s a God thing. I can’t describe it.”
“I think it’s a great thing for the kids to be doing,” added his wife, Velen. “They’re doing such a great job — they’re really kind and they’re really hard working."
Two of the Martinezes daughters joined in to help with the work Monday and, along with Velen, they are taking part in the noon-time devotions that accompany the on-site lunch each day.
Savannah Rodriguez, 14, said she’s excited to have a group of youths working at her house.
“They’re really nice to talk to,” she said. “They’re from all over different states.”
“They’re great helpers,” added 12-year-old Chloe Martinez.
The Martinez sisters attend youth group at their church, Solid Rock Assembly in Worthington, and were inspired by those taking part in the work camp.
Many of the Group Workcamp volunteers spent the past year raising money to take part in the experience in Worthington. From bake sales to doing yard work and other fundraisers, one group from Bloomington, Ill., raised approximately $30,000 to send a busload of 51 participants to southwest Minnesota.
Seth Klessig is one of the adult volunteers who accompanied them, and he was guiding the teens at the Martinez site.
A special education teacher with his summer off from the classroom, Klessig said he made a commitment “to the big guy up there,” when he signed on for his second year as an adult leader. His daughter, Molly, is one of the youth volunteers on the trip.
Rebekah Crews, 16, of St. Paul’s E-Free Church in St. Louis, Mo., is a first-time Group Workcamp attendee, and after the first day on the job, she said she’s having an “amazing” experience.
“I want to connect with people from different places and learn more about God,” Crews said. “These people are amazing — I really like them.”
It is the people — the ones taking part in the camp, the team members and the residents — that brought Elizabeth Laning back for a second experience.
“It’s so wonderful to see a community — how grateful they are,” she said. “It feels so good to help others. It’s like a spiritual high — you just feel God everywhere.”
Laning and Melissa Cunningham are among the six volunteers working on projects at the home of Cec Burchill this week. They scraped the gutters and moved some furniture from the basement on Monday in preparation for gutter and basement floor painting. They will also be repairing the deck on the front of the home.
Burchill’s home was submitted to organizers as a possible benefactor of the Group Workcamp, for which she is grateful.
“It’s a blessing — it’s a huge blessing,” she said. “This is a great group of kids — really friendly, really nice. They’re hard workers.
“They give you another new perspective in life,” she added. “It’s just good to see this generation is a helpful, serving generation. I grew up with that mentality — you just give and you serve. To see that carry on in this generation, it’s just really neat.”
Bob Hindy of Fowlerville, Mich. took a week off from his job with GreenStone Farm Credit Services in East Lansing, to serve as a group leader.
“These are really good kids,” Hindy said. “I’m trying to get students to serve their community and to see God serving and working with them. It seems like God can let them do big things and bring it back to their community. Just doing one week a year, honestly, isn’t enough. You have to constantly be doing it.”