By GRACE GADDY
An army of high school students wielding hammers, crowbars, saws and other no-nonsense tools could be spotted intermittently throughout the community this past week, scattered across worksites in Palestine, Elkhart and Slocum.
For five sunny days, 11 teams of 50 servant-hearted students were off to work by 8:30 a.m. to toil and sweat building ramps, pouring cement, drilling boards, painting houses and other general construction-repair assignments — and all, not for as much as one red penny.
Their reason? Just “wanting to help,” many said, as well as “to share the light of Christ,” according to Jeff Sparks, youth director at Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tyler.
The students had come as the "United Methodist Army" (United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth) commonly referred to as "U.M. ARMY,” a summer mission-camp movement that has spread through communities across Texas, as well as northeastern states, with plans to expand across the nation.
According to the U.M. ARMY website, camps began in 1979, when 36 youth and adults from Houston area churches were gearing up to go on a mission trip to Tennessee. However, instead of leaping far on the out-of-state project, they decided to change directions, save the money they would have used on travel and spend it on needs near home — hence, the first U.M. ARMY camp.
By 1998, 24 camps hosting 2,500 servant-hearted leaders to extend helping hands to needs present in their surrounding communities.
Sparks said that today, about 2,000 students go through the Texas program, making up 50 camps spread over 10 weeks and involving students from area churches.
“This week alone, there's 10 camps going on in Texas,” he said, adding that this year's theme is “Light Bearer — to go shed Christ's light in your community.”
Accordingly, the camp lighting up Palestine this week included 80 participants of both students and adult leaders from Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tyler and the First United Methodist Churches of Lufkin, Livingston and Ore City, respectively.
Over the week, student work crews contributed fresh enthusiasm and high metabolisms to assist residents in need with minor home repairs, catering especially to low-income, elderly or disabled individuals.
Sparks said the mission of the camp is to serve people in need, while promoting leadership development in youth.
Each day, students are given leadership roles such as “navigator” and “site leader” and, in addition, learn useful repair skills over the week — skills like wielding a hammer, as Sydney Stewart, 15, of Dayspring, put it.
“It's pretty cool! I'd never done hammer work before,” Stewart said. “You have to get toward the bottom of the hammer and not the top, so you can swing, and let the heaviest part hit it so it can hit it better — but I still don't know how to use the other end of it yet.”
Stewart said she also liked the morning and nightly worship services, as well as meeting the clients — a part of the experience that several students told the Herald-Press was a highlight.
Gracie Tyson, 16, of Lufkin FUMC, said worship services and “seeing the clients' reactions” were too her favorite part of the whole experience.
“Seeing clients reactions when we're finished, they're just so thankful,” Tyson said, “and it's a good feeling when you're finished.”
On Thursday, Stewart and Tyson were both busy with their crew building a wheelchair ramp for a local resident, a project that turned into a sort of multilayered job.
“We were supposed to be refurbishing this wheelchair ramp, but it was in worse shape that we thought,” Tyson said. “So we're probably going to have to rebuild it.”
The crew ended up pouring concrete as well between the curb and ramp for the resident, which involved lots of drilling, laying boards and painting.
“It's really fun, even though it's really tiring,” Tyson added.
Hammering off to the side was crew member Jacob Sanders, 15, who said this was his first year to participate in U.M. ARMY.
“Some of my family and friends have been coming here, and they've had such great times,” Sanders said. “And I wanted to come see how it is and try it myself, and I've had a good time so far.”
Similarly, Tyson said she grew up watching other people take part in the camp, “and they always grew spiritually.”
For Cailyn Taylor, 17 (who will be 18 in a week) the U.M. ARMY experience is familiar.
“This is actually my fourth year,” Taylor said. “I've come every year that I can, because I love it. I love helping people and I love seeing how God has worked. I love seeing how God works differently through different individuals and seeing how happy you can make the client, because some of them aren't as fortunate as I am.”
Taylor said “being able to help somebody else” is definitely a day-maker for her.
“I don't know, it just puts me in a good mood knowing that I can make somebody else's life easier,” she said. “Last year, a client... couldn't leave her house because she needed a wheelchair ramp.”
To make it possible for the lady to do so was worth all the week's toil, Taylor said.
Cordin Rudis, 15, said her favorite part of the week is in fact, the work.
“I like to come out here and just kind of forget everything else that I have going on at home, and just come here and focus on somebody else for a week.”
The camp kicked off Sunday evening, with students staying in rooms at the First United Methodist Church in Palestine, and will be returning to their respective communities this morning.