More Than Nails and Screws - An Eye-opening Mission
Fourteen members of Chatham United Methodist Church's (CUMC) youth group returned weary but proud on July 28 from their week-long mission trip in Steuben County, New York, where they repaired homes for struggling families in need. This is the 32nd year that CUMC has been sending youth groups and adults to Steuben County. Since CUMC started the program, called RISE (Risingville Intercommunity Service Effort), it has grown to include dozens of churches and volunteer groups from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.
This year's youth group from CUMC also included six adult youth leaders; they formed into three work teams with four or five youth and two adults each. The three teams drove to Bath, New York, and were hosted for the week by Centenary United Methodist Church in Bath, sleeping on air mattresses on classroom floors in the church. The town of Bath, like many areas of Steuben County has high unemployment and very low household incomes, steadily declining since Corning Glass shut down its major operations in Corning in the 1970's. (In Bath, population 5,900, the median household income is less than $27,000, less than half the median for New York state.)
Many of the families served by RISE in Steuben County live in trailer parks or small single-family homes and are unable to keep up and maintain their homes.
The unofficial slogan of RISE is "warmer, dryer, safer," reflecting the home repair focus of church work teams -- fixing roofs, building ramps and steps, stabilizing and protecting homes from damaging weather. All three RISE teams from CUMC this year had the opportunity to work on trailer homes needing new "skirting" -- the weather barrier that wraps around the base of a trailer home between the ground and the trailer bottom. Trailer homes need solid skirting to hold out snow, rain, and cold winter winds, to keep the floors warm, and maintain a stable base.
For most of the Chatham youth participating, this year was educational and eye-opening. Eleven of Chatham's fourteen youth were rookies -- this was their first RISE mission trip -- and many of them had practically no experience working with construction tools. Since the RISE program is designed around providing young people the opportunity to give their hands and hearts to help others, the adult RISE staff and leaders spend most of their time teaching. "A deck built over the course of five days by unskilled teenagers that care means much more to the families we serve than if the same deck was built professionaly by one adult worker in half a day," according to RISE veteran and Chatham resident Rob Lyon. He said that after giving his team a few hours of training on how to hammer in nails, they assembled a small deck and stairs for their family in Bath without wasting a single nail. "Not one!"
The youth worked outside all week in typical New York summer weather: from extreme heat to heavy rain and thunderstorms. Even when the physical demands of the work felt beyond them, they knew they were learning new skills and making a difference in the lives of the families they were helping. Madison Bruno, one of the Chatham girls on Rob Lyon's team, took on the challenge of screwing together a staircase, but couldn't do it all herself. “OK," she said at one point, "I'll let you help me. I now know how to do it, even if I can't get it right. It’s frustrating, but at least I've learned.” At the end of the week, everyone understood that their experience of learning and giving mattered more than the number of nails and screws they had used.
According to the Steuben Courier, 13,500 people live below the Federal poverty guidelines in Steuben County yet only 500 adults and 1,000 children receive cash assistance. "A 2010 Gallup Poll stated 16,000 people in Steuben County experienced food hardship because they did not have money to buy food for themselves and their families sometime during the previous 12 months. One in five children in our community is living in poverty... A single parent heads fifty percent of families living in poverty in our county. "