Thursday, June 26, 2003

Teens spruce up the neighborhood

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Work camp volunteers from Belmont Christian Church in Christiansburg, Va., work on Rachel Street in Camp Washington Wednesday.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Allen Clark sat on the steps of his rented Sidney Avenue home in Camp Washington Wednesday afternoon, watching a parade of sorts: teenagers wearing tool belts, pushing wheelbarrows and toting plywood, boards and buckets.

"At first, I thought we were being invaded," said Clark, 40.

But the teens are part of a church "work camp" that ultimately will include 1,500 teens from 20 states doing community service projects in the city of Cincinnati and elsewhere in the Tristate this summer. They'll spruce up blighted properties and feed the homeless.

They'll come in waves; right now, there are about 350 participants here.

And the kids pay for the privilege of philanthropy, said John Wierwille, pastor of Washington United Church of Christ on Sidney Avenue, a catalyst for change in one of Cincinnati's older, poorer neighborhoods.

The teens pay fees of $150 or more for a five-to-seven day program that includes Christian fellowship, toiling in the hot sun and "learning to start thinking outside themselves," said Bill Baumgardner Jr. of Joplin, Mo.

He is a leader of the Christ in Youth "Know Sweat" Service Projects, one of the groups that works with Wierwille's church.

"We try to teach them there are people who volunteer and people who are servants - and being a servant is something that's a lifestyle, something you have a mind-set to do all the time," Baumgardner said.

Cody Hinkle, 15, attends Lakeside Community Church near Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Believe it or not, while we're working our butts off, we're having a really great time out here," he said. "I think it's helped me to see how different other people's experiences are.

"In my neighborhood, everyone has a really comfortable life," Cody added. "It makes you want to do more for people here."

Stacie Oosterhouse, 16, who attends the same church near Grand Rapids, said these projects are addictive: "I know I wouldn't miss any opportunity I get to go on one again."

She likes the fellowship with other teens, plus the sense of accomplishment from getting a project finished. She said it's well worth the participation fee, which pays for materials and expenses.

Clark, the Camp Washington resident, was impressed that the teens pay for the privilege of working.

"They're doing the Lord's work," he said. "That's outstanding!"

Then, gesturing to Wierwille's church, Clark said the projects have had a contagious neighborhood-improvement effect.

Five years ago, when Clark first moved here and Wierwille arrived to launch the annual "work camp" projects, "It was like stepping into 'Castle Grayskull,' when you'd go walking down this street," Clark said. "Everything was dull and dark."

Now, many houses have been painted with bright shades like yellow and teal, and multicolored flowers are blooming in front yards and window boxes.

"The light can shine through," said Clark, whose home was built in 1865. "And people are a lot more neighborly now. It's a lot nicer place to live."

On Tuesday, when a fatal fire occurred around the block from the church, the teens prayed on the street for the firefighters and the occupants. Wierwille likes to think of Camp Washington as "a place on its way back," and he credits the work of the youths with much of the rebirth.

"When we go to Lowe's (home improvement store) and they say, 'What in the world are you buying this stuff for?' We say, 'We're rebuilding a neighborhood,'" Wierwille said. "We're also teaching these kids that they're building God's kingdom, and they're building something important inside themselves."


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