By Judith Taylor
When you think about impoverished communities, a fair reaction is to think about the factors that led that community in that direction – massive job losses, lack of community or government investment, and the list continues. If your mind goes in that direction, it might not be so obvious to understand what role a single person, or a single church has in reversing such trends in that community. For nearly 20 years, the youth, clergy and members of St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Uniontown have been learning, out of response to the Gospel, they have a role in combating poverty and they have something to offer their neighbors, even if it’s as simple as picking up a paintbrush or hammering a nail.
Every summer, St. Peter’s sends youth and volunteers to Reach workcamps, organized by Reach Mission Trips, an interdenominational para-church organization. Reach Mission Trips organizes and coordinates the completion of basic home repair projects for elderly, disabled, and low-income families. Working with local agencies and/or local churches, the construction aim of the workcamp is to provide neighbors with a warmer, drier, and safer home. The workcamp also helps to restore lost pride and hope in the neighbors. In many cases, the repair work helps to reduce utility costs. It is a life-changing experience as campers participate in activities that build community and self-esteem, encourages spiritual growth, and enables them to understand their role in combating poverty.
Typically, the St. Peter’s youth leaders pick one of several communities across the country to send a team to. But this year the choice was easy. Reach chose Brownsville, PA as the location for two, separate weeks of work camps this past June. According to Reach’s research, Brownsville has seen it’s population decrease by 50% since 1970, 17% since 2000. The biggest contributor to the decrease has been the decline of the coal and steel industries. Brownsville is facing hard times. An astonishing 37.6% of the residents live in poverty, including 51% of children, and 17.9% of those over 65.
St. Peter’s was the host church for these workcamps and students camped at Brownsville Middle School where 70% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to the PA Dept. of Education. Five St. Peter’s students and 9 adults volunteers participated in the two workcamp weeks, including St. Peter’s Rector, Rev. Canon John Cruikshank and Rev. Deacon Christine Dunn. The youth and adult work crew leaders slept at the school; the other volunteers slept at home.
Teams served 64 Brownsville-area homes. Need was high; there were over 200 applications from area residents. Junior high youth typically did interior and exterior painting and basic carpentry. Senior high youth helped build decks, stairs, handicap ramps. Other projects included roofing on one story roofs and drywalling.
If having middle school and high school students doing home repairs makes you nervous, rest assured Reach makes sure these teams are well supported. Local, capable handymen or contractors, called “Troubleshooters”, are assigned to 2-5 worksites during the week. These volunteers are on-call to students and visit the sites at least once each day to see how the work is going and advise when needed. A few of the St. Peter’s adult volunteers served in this role. Additionally, St. Peter’s members served as in school volunteers, helping with cleaning, preparing activity totes for each work crew, driving camera crews to work sites and “other duties as assigned”. Having the locals volunteer is a critical factor in each camp’s success, and it was a joy for St. Peter’s to step up in such a vital way.