While most teenagers are busy enjoying the last carefree days of summer, eight teens from Lehighton spent the summer preparing for a missionary trip. The youth of People's Evangelical Congregational Church in Lehighton recently donated a week of their time to help inner-city children.
The trip was organized through the Group Workcamps Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on short-term missionary trips and community service. Teenagers and chaperones travel to a camp site for one week to make a positive impact on communities, and to develop friendships with disadvantaged youth and other Christian volunteers.
"It's been life-changing," said Alex Ogden, 15, who has now attended Week of Hope twice. "You see the world from a different perspective, and you get to see how other people live."
The Lehighton group traveled to York, Pa. for Week of Hope and while they weren't far from home, others had traveled from as far away as Nebraska. More than 90 teens and adults took part in the program.
Their project for the week? Build relationships with impoverished children, many of whom come from broken homes and are without positive role models. The teens helped to run a summer camp at a nearby park for the children, and also spent one day volunteering at a food pantry. They cleaned up the park each night after camp, and returned early each morning to clean up broken glass and trash. Drugs, alcohol and litter were a big problem at the playground at night.
The inner-city park was nothing like the teens have back home, they said. The park had a basketball court and a swing set which meant that it was up to the teens in charge to create games and keep the children interested.
"They really had to interact with the kids, which is the whole point of the program," said the Rev. Kenneth Ogden, the pastor of People's Church and a chaperone for the trip. "These are really impoverished children who are looking for relationships."
This is the second time that People's Church has taken part in the program Ogden and a small group attended last year, and recommended that a larger group attend this summer.
"It was really fun last year, so we decided to do it again this year," said Alex.
Each morning began at 6 a.m. with breakfast and a short worship service. The group spent the week in an old building with no air-conditioning, cold showers, and just two bathrooms among each of the 40-plus groups of men and women.
Still, the teens barely complained about their living conditions. They knew they would come home to warm showers and family members in just a week, and that their new friends in York would continue to live in poverty.
"It makes you grateful for what you have," said Hannah Bartron, 15, who spent the week working alongside her sister, Abigail, who is 12. They each made friends with young children from broken and disadvantaged homes, and were deeply changed by the experience.
"She didn't have someone to talk to," said Abigail of one girl at camp. "I can talk to my sister when I have a problem. She can't do that."
"You take for granted the relationships that you have at home. It really changes your perspective," added Hannah.
While the teens learned a lot about themselves and their good fortune in life, they also noted one underlying theme during the week hope. While the trip was called a "Week of Hope," nowhere was "hope" more obvious than in the children at the camp. Many of the children were cheerful and playful despite their problems. They were eager to make new friends for the summer.
"Many of these kids have hope that things will get better," said Alex. "They walked in with a smile on their face each day."
This theme of hope also ran through the week's slogan, "undeserved." The theme meant to reflect the belief that we are undeserving of God's love and forgiveness, but that He loves us anyway.
The teens prepared for the week by meeting each month to discuss the trip, said Ogden.
"We met once a month for six months to talk about what to expect, and how we need to share the love of Christ," he said. He was proud of the group's serious attitude, and their wiliness to help those in York. The group's success was made possible by the church's support during fundraisers, and private donations that helped to cover the cost of travel, food and housing.
"The church really supports this ministry, and they know that these men and women will do good work," he added.
Despite the hard work involved, the teens are already making plans to attend the Week of Hope next year.
"If we get the opportunity, I definitely want to go next year," said Hannah. "It's like taking a week away from your own life, and standing in someone else's shoes."
"At the same time, we're trying to make their life better," added Alex.