PROGRAM PUTS YOUTH TO WORK
By Monique Harrison
All it took was a few layers of paint, a new door and the elbow grease of enthusiastic young volunteers and Betty Bradley had what she saw as a new home.
“These young people – these teen-agers – they have given me a whole new house, a beautiful, beautiful house,” said Bradley, whose North Church Street home is one of 12 being worked on this weekend by youth from six Lee County churches. “They’ve come out here and worked so hard. And they are very nice. I’ve had a lot of fun today.”
A team of about 15 teens and adult supervisors worked to paint the home of Bradley, her daughter and two young grandchildren. The group also cleared debris from the front yard and replaced a screen door in the home, where the family has lived for about three years.
The activities were part of HILL T.O.P. (Tupelo Outreach Project), which is patterned after similar projects done each summer in communities in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.
The event is the brainchild of Tupelo’s Mark Denham, who is a member of First United Methodist Church.
“Every year, a few of our youth go up (in the Appalachian Mountains) to work for a week,” Denham said. “And every year when they left, I wondered why we weren’t doing that kind of work in our own community. I wanted the youth to see that you don’t have to travel somewhere else to help people. Some of the most important work we can do is right here, where we live.”
When it started last year, only youth from Tupelo’s First United Methodist Church participated in the event, renovating five houses. This year, in hopes of reaching more homeowners, Denham solicited the help of five other youth groups.
Participating groups include First Presbyterian, All Saints’ Episcopal, St. Paul United Methodist, New Life Fellowship and the Mooreville Methodist Charge. About 130 youth and 40 adult volunteers took part.
Participating students gathered at First United Methodist on Friday, spending the night. After working all day Saturday, they returned to the church again. Following early morning church services today, they were scheduled to return to their work sites to put finishing touches on their projects.
Teens said they didn’t see the volunteer project as a sacrifice.
“This really puts us in touch with Christ and what he wants us to do,” 15-year-old Tupelo High student Kelly Irwin said from atop a ladder, as she put another layer of blue-gray paint on the north side of Bradley’s home. “We’re helping people do things when they aren’t able to do it themselves.”
Twelve-year-old Ashley Ray made a friend during the project.
“(Bradley) kept bringing us cookies and things,” the Tupelo Middle School student said. “She sang and danced with us.”
The young volunteers didn’t claim to be experts when they began their work.
“It rained a little this morning and it was really hard because if you leaned against the wall, water came out and made the paint run everywhere,” said 12-year-old Lauren Davis. “It was hard and we didn’t know what to do. But, we got it under control with some help from (the adults) and I think it looks pretty good.”
At the South Church Street home of Geraldine Faulkner, teens painted, did yard work, planted trees and put up shutters.
The 70-year-old Faulkner said while she thought the volunteers did an excellent job renovating her home, it wasn’t the fresh coat of yellow paint and the newly planted trees that she most appreciated.
“I don’t get to spend much time with children this age,” Faulkner said, smiling. “They are such a fascinating bunch of young people. Very cheerful and happy – well-behaved and hard-working. I told them I was going to adopt some grandchildren after this weekend. I just loved having them around.”
Adult volunteer Phil Byerly said Faulkner’s reaction made the weekend worthwhile.
“She’s been helping us out and she’s been smiling all day long,” the 30-year-old said. “She hasn’t stopped smiling. It’s just nice to know we are helping. It’s a great way to spend a weekend.”