Summer break in Southeast Texas usually means Crystal Beach or Galveston, or even just days of Netflix and chill – at least for kids or those with kids. But some teens choose to use the hot days between semesters to give back to others, many going on mission trips or volunteering.
Last week, a group of 40 people came to Orange – most of them teens – to repair homes still damaged by hurricanes. Not only were they volunteering, but they paid up to $275 each to work in the southeast Texas heat.
These groups were part of the UM Army, or United Methodist Action Reach out Mission by Youth, an organization that has been around for decades, sending groups from Methodist churches across the country. The Orange group was made up of 4 different churches – Friendswood Methodist, United Methodist Church of Frankston, Montgomery United Methodist Church and a Missouri group – Chillicothe United Methodist Church. Divided into teams, the groups’ home base from July 18 to July 24 was the First United Methodist Church in Orange. Each team had adult team leaders and followed a daily schedule.
“Every day is a routine,” said Dee Ann Emberton, Camp Director for the Orange camp. “Worship first, then breakfast. A send-off with music and dancing while they load materials for that day’s work in their vehicles and head to the site.”
The ‘site’ is a predetermined location on that day’s list, and each team had their own site. This is followed by a break for lunch, and then the teams work at the sites until 4:30, returning to ‘home base’ for devotional, entertainment and then rest.
“These kids are up at 7, down at 11, to get up and do it again and again,” Emberton said. “During lunch breaks, the kids will sit down with the homeowner and talk with them, pray with them.”
Although some of the worksites were hurricane-damaged, some were homes that needed wheelchair ramps.
The UM Army begins their summer planning in March and finds clients through word of mouth or through organizations like Orange County Disaster Rebuild and Texas Wheelchair Ramps.
This was the third time that the UM Army had been in Orange – although the team members change each time. The teams consist of 9th – 12th graders, and the fees they paid for the trip goes to building materials and their meals for the week.
Team member, Cayleb Cothern, 17, was from the Missouri group.
“This was the farthest I’ve ever traveled, and I wanted to see the ocean,” he said. “Our first job, we built a deck and a ramp, and we finished that up for a guy that was injured. He had a tough time getting up and down from his camper.”
Cothern said the night before this interview, there was a client appreciation dinner, and his group spoke to the man whose ramp they’d built.
“He was showing us pictures of him and his dog sitting out on the deck. They’ve never been able to do that before. I felt like we really did something to help someone out. He’s such a generous guy and really deserved this.”
Cothern said he was glad that he did the camp, and plans to do it next year. “We got here not knowing each other, now we all seem like we’re best friends. Everybody’s hardworking down here.”
Another camp member, Wesley Huhn, 15, from the Friendswood church, learned about the UM Army from family who had done the camp before.
“Throughout the week and all the rain, the four churches got together,” he said. “ Our first site we redid an old ramp, then our next sites were two new ramps. These were the more emotional ones, because these people haven’t been able to get out of their house easily. We had a man who had been an amputee for a month, he hadn’t been out of the house at all.
“The second man was a veteran who was an amputee. We get there and he’s not there, he had to leave for a Dr.’s appointment,” Huhn recalled. “His house is 4 feet off the ground. We couldn’t wait, we had to get started because we were behind.”
His group set out to rebuild the wheelchair ramp and deck, and were in the middle of it when the man returned. With no ramp or deck yet, he couldn’t get back into his house.
“We all get together and lift him up in his wheelchair, and he was all, like, ‘this is the best elevator ride’! He was cheery and happy.”
Huhn’s father had taught him about tool use, but he said it’s not every day you can just build a ramp for a person that needs it. He said that even though mission trips are good experiences, this one was the most impactful. A neighbor of a client whose ramp they built had stopped by and said he’d been praying that someone would build a ramp for him.
“That was a really cool moment,” Huhn said. “I want to come back every time I can. I just love Orange. I love all the oranges painted (The Orange Grove Project). We went by the hardware store (Child’s) and wanted to buy one.”
Jacob Torrez is a pastor from Montgomery, Texas, and one of the camp leaders. This was his third year with the UM Army, and also his first time in Orange.
One of his team’s job sites was a woman whose home was storm-damaged, and in her driveway was a dumpster so overfilled with debris, that the company wouldn’t pick it up. Torrez’s group went into the dumpster, cutting up tree branches, and stomped on the debris until it fit under the fill line.
At another site, Torrez said, his team did subflooring, and drywall for a ceiling. Torrez had experience with building fences, but he said construction knowledge isn’t a requirement, nor is it something most of the kids have.
“The good thing,” he said, “is if I don’t know something I’ll ask. That’s one of the good things about UM Army, you can ask for help. You have doctors who are here acting as site coordinators – all types – but the professions don’t matter because here we are all equal. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t know, it’s what can you do to help the client. It has nothing to do with us. It has to do with it has to do with how we’re showing God, to live like we are all the hands and feet of Jesus.
“That’s what I love about this organization, you’re selfless, it’s for the benefit of others. I have a group of kids from MO, all over Texas, and watching them blossom, becoming extroverts, working together as a team while they sing, watch them come together as a team, even in tough times. It never becomes work when you love what you do. We had a lot of fun doing this. Orange has been super hospitable. You guys have a great town. It’s a blessing to be a part of this,” Torrez said.
“These kids care a lot and do amazing work,” Dee Ann Emberton said. “There was one house, had holes in the subfloor, no sheetrock. The owners are living in one section of the house. Next thing I know I’m getting a call from the kids to pick up cleaning supplies. These kids wanted to clean the bathroom, even though there was no sheetrock in the room!
“If you have kids, you know that getting a teenager to clean up anything is impossible,” she joked. “But they were like, if I can do this, then someone can work on the floor at the same time. They are dedicated and want to do this.
“When in doubt about the future, I would just say these kids work hard and do great work. They are compassionate. I’ve seen them work together to do whatever needs to be done.”